Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir (and the basis of a 2010 Julia Roberts movie) about an emotionally unhappy young woman who rejects the traditional American version of life (spouse & kids) and then attempts to invent a personalized, alternate version by taking extended visits (four months each) to three popular philosophical meccas – Italy to “eat,” India to “pray,” and Indonesia to “love.”
Of the three meccas, I enjoyed Italy the least because it was the least philosophical, unless you consider hedonism to be a philosophy. India was my favorite because it centered on life in an ashram, with yoga, meditation, and a guru (Malti Shetty). And finally, Indonesia is the place where Gilbert tries to balance the physical and spiritual components of a flourishing life.
The book was a joy to read because, as noted by The New York Times Book Review, “Gilbert’s prose is fueled by a mix of intelligence, wit, and colloquial exuberance.” Among her insights:
- While deciding to remain celibate during her year of personal exploration, she tells herself, “When I get lonely these days, I think: So be lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
- When confronting the fact that she didn’t want children – “I still can’t say whether I will ever want children. I was so astonished to find that I did not want them at thirty; the remembrance of that surprise cautions me against placing any bets on how I will feel at forty. I can only say how I feel now – grateful to be on my own. I also know that I won’t go forth and have children just in case I might regret missing it later in life; I don’t think this is a strong enough motivation to bring more babies onto the earth. Though I suppose people do reproduce sometimes for that reason – for insurance against later regret. I think people have children for all manner of reasons…. Not all reasons to have children are the same, and not all of them are necessarily unselfish. Not all the reasons not to have children are the same, either, though. Nor are all those reasons necessarily selfish. I say this because I’m still working out that accusation, which was leveled against me many times by my husband as our marriage was collapsing – selfishness.”
- When describing the difference between meditation and prayer, “I’ve heard it said that prayer is the act of talking to God, while meditation is the act of listening. Take a wild guess as to which comes easier for me. I can prattle away to God about all my feelings and my problems all the livelong day, but when it comes time to descend into silence and listen… well, that’s a different story. When I ask my mind to rest in stillness, it is astonishing how quick it will turn to (1) bored, (2) angry, (3) depressed, (4) anxious, or (5) all of the above.”
- When discussing the “examined life”: “I should say here that I’m aware not everyone does through this kind of metaphysical crisis. Some of us are hardwired for anxiety about mortality, while some of us just seem more comfortable with the whole deal. You meet lots of apathetic people in this world, of course, but you also meet some people who seem to be able to gracefully accept the terms upon which the universe operates and who genuinely don’t seem troubled by its paradoxes and injustices…. Instead of being amused, though, I’m only anxious. Instead of watching, I’m always probing and interfering. The other day in prayer, I said to God, “Look – I understand that the unexamined life is not worth living, but do you think I could have an unexamined lunch?”
- Upon finally breaking through with her meditation, “As a reader and seeker, I always get frustrated at this moment in somebody else’s spiritual memoirs – that moment in which the soul excuses itself from time and place and merges with the infinite. From the Buddha to Saint Teresa to the Sufi mystics to my own Guru – so many great souls over the centuries have tried to express in so many words what it feels like to become one with the divine, but I’m never quite satisfied by these descriptions. Often you will see the maddening adjective indescribable used to describe the event…. So now I have found out. And I don’t want to say that what I experienced that Thursday afternoon was indescribable, even though it was.”
- On rejecting a potential Brazilian lover and remaining celibate – “Well. A word about masturbation, if I may. Sometimes it can be a handy (forgive me) tool, but other times it can be so acutely unsatisfying that it only makes you feel worse in the end. After a year and a half of celibacy, after a year and a half of calling my own name in my bed-built-for-one, I was getting a little sick of the sport. Still, tonight, in my restless state – what else could I do? So I had my way with myself yet again. As usual, my mind paged through its backlog of erotic files, looking for the right fantasy or memory that would help get the job done fastest. But nothing was really working tonight – not the firemen, not the pirates, not that pervy old Bill Clinton standby scene that usually does the trick…. In the end, the only thing that would satisfy was when I reluctantly admitted into my mind the idea of my good friend from Brazil climbing into my bed with me… on me… Then I slept…. Then I meditated for an hour of bone-tingling stillness until I finally felt it again…. That happiness which is better, truly, than anything I have ever experienced anywhere else on this earth…. I was so glad I had made the decision to stay alone.”
- On considering a permanent life in Indonesia – “This is a concern I’ve had, too. I’ve been watching the expatriate society in Ubud, and I know for a stone-cold fact this is not the life for me. Everywhere in this town you see the same kind of character – Westerners who have been so ill-treated and badly worn by life that they’ve dropped the who struggle and decided to camp out here in Bali indefinitely, where they can live in a gorgeous house for $200 a month, perhaps taking in a young Balinese man or woman as a companion, where they can drink before noon without getting any static about it…. But it seems to me that everyone I meet here used to be something once (generally ‘married’ or ‘employed’; now they are all united by the absence of the one thing they seem to have surrendered completely and forever: ambition. Needless to say, there’s a lot of drinking.”
As I started reading this book, I glanced at the Wikipedia description of it (which I shouldn’t have done because it reveals some information about the Brazilian guy that I didn’t need to know), but I also learned that the book had been turned into a Julia Roberts movie, which I proceeded to request from Netflix. Two days later, it was in my mailbox waiting to be watched.
As soon as I finished the book, I immediately turned to the DVD. What a disappointment? I haven’t been so disappointed in film treatment of a book since Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. What was wrong about the movie? Let me count the ways:
- I enjoyed Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and Notting Hill, but nothing since then. Her brain is clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed, and this makes her terribly miscast as a perceptive, introspective Liz Gilbert.
- I didn’t like Liz Gilbert much in the book, with her honesty and insights not enough to outweigh her narcissism, but Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert is much worse. The two America men who she rejected – husband Stephen and boyfriend David – seem like wonderful guys, while the Brazilian who she ultimately hooks up with seems like the lap-dog foreigner type that she disparages others ex-pats for hooking up with.
- The movie tracks the book too closely. The book comprises 108 short stories – 36 for each location – based on the 108 beads on a japa mala that Hindus and Buddhists use during meditation. That sort of structure doesn’t work for a romantic drama. It felt more like a documentary than a three-act play.
- The movie misses so much depth that the book contains. According to the Rotten Tomato summary, “The scenery is nice to look at, and Julia Roberts is as luminous as ever, but without the spiritual and emotional weight of the book that inspired it, Eat Pray Love is too shallow to resonate.”
Only 37% of the Rotten Tomato critics like the movie, and the audience was only marginally better at 44%. Based on my experience, I think an individual would be better off seeing the movie first before reading the book because the challenging book raised the bar too high for the movie. If I had seen the movie first, I might be able to try to enjoy and understand it instead of continually noting the discrepancies (in the book, Richard the Texan was not such a curmudgeon and Stephen was not such a great guy) or the omission of things I thought important.
There were some positive critical reviews, but the negative ones resonated with me:
- The Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers referred to watching it as “being trapped with a person of privilege who won’t stop with the whine whine whine.”
- Political columnist Maureen Dowd termed the film “navel-gazing drivel.”
- The BBC’s Mark Kermode listed the film as 4th on his list of Worst Films of the Year, saying: “Eat Pray Love… vomit. A film with the message that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, although I think the people who made that film loved themselves rather too much.”
I give the movie one star out of four.