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Triumph with Triumphalism
Elizabeth Gilbert is sentenced to wed
by Molly Templeton
COMMITTED: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert. Viking, 2010. Hardcover, $26.95.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s thing — the thing that sold a gazillion copies of Eat, Pray, Love, her memoir about coming through heartbreak by traveling to Italy (to learn Italian), India (to live in an ashram) and Indonesia (to study with a medicine man and fall in love) — is an unlikely feeling of exceptional commonality. A breezy and conversational writer, she has a way of imbuing her specific experiences with the sense that they could easily be the reader’s experiences. She’s present as a character, but her character is part blank screen on which you can project your own failures, successes, heartbreaks and hopes. You read her story, and as you read, her tone takes you by the hand and guides you to a seat next to her, whether she’s crying on a bathroom floor or relaxing on a Bali beach.
Gilbert’s easygoing honesty continues in Committed, but her new book is less likely to strike such a resounding chord. For one thing, her ambivalence about marriage might not be quite so widespread as was the impetus behind EPL — the drive to find herself and sort out her emotional and spiritual life. But the bigger change here is less the topic than the presentation: Elizabeth Gilbert has arrived. She’s still chatty, warm and emotional, but Committed is much more her book, her specific journey; her character, so nebulous and forming in Eat, Pray, Love, is much more resolute. Her heart is set, and her task is clearer, smaller and more precise. If that book was an emotional journey, Committed is the last hurdle — the one you’re almost too tired to surmount — before the destination.
Committed finds Gilbert and Felipe, the older Brazilian gent she fell in love with at the end of the previous book, happily living together in America — as much as possible. Felipe, an Australian citizen, comes and goes on tourist visas until a fateful day at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, where he is detained and interrogated, then booted out of the country. The couple has only one option if Felipe ever wants to enter the U.S. again. They’ve gotta get hitched.
Gilbert’s feelings about marriage are heavily colored by her previous experience with the institution, the fallout from which is arguably the reason Eat, Pray, Love exists. Felipe, also divorced, is on the same page. For months, they travel around southeast Asia, waiting for the U.S. government to tell them they can come home. But this book isn’t about the trials of dealing with bureaucrats; it’s about the trials of dealing with yourself, your partner, your society and the weight and meaning of a tradition that goes back centuries. Gilbert’s swift presentation of the history of marriage has a decidedly and delightfully feminist bent, but it simply isn’t as involving as her experience. (It is, however, a needed reminder that marriage has always been malleable, and still ought to be, in order to suit the world in which it takes place.) She’s not a scholar, but a writer who can turn her own and others’ lives into a compelling narrative that explores some of the most complex and personal issues that arrise for modern (middle-class, white, American) women.
This knack for documenting experience propelled EPL and balances Committed, making it a fairly satisfying if not entirely illuminating read (one from which I’d like to excise the awkward anthropological sections). Gilbert gleans the most affecting insights from the stories of her own family. Even when her research is solid and fascinating — she thoughtfully spells out the reasons why marriage been both necessary and not always been a good thing for women, even as it generally improves the lives of men — it pales next to her recounting of the things her mother gave up in her marriage and for her children. There’s an incredible kindness in the way Gilbert (whom I want to call Liz, as she calls herself) refuses to judge or pigeonhole women who just want to be married, to feel chosen, despite the fact that she wants none of it herself (she also doesn’t want kids, a decision about which I hope she writes an entirely separate book).
There are no surprises at the end of Committed. But the book’s brief final chapter, in which Liz does, after everything, get married, feels like a quiet triumph — the sweet, hard-earned triumph of a woman over her own doubt.