Friday, January 16, 2009

Putting the "Me" in "Memoir"

If it weren't a book club pick, I would have skipped Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I'm not a big memoir fan (although Julie Andrews's memoir has been on my TBR list, but then, she's had a long, interesting life already--Gilbert is in her thirties). Other people's spiritual journeys CAN be interesting to read, but I didn't have high hopes for this one. And last, I view the "Oprah" sticker as more a warning label than a marketing tool (I have every respect for Oprah, but I've discovered we have vastly different tastes in literature.) I found it predictably self-centered (but that's memoir, isn't it?) and overly long, but there were enjoyable parts.

The premise wasn't promising to me: A thirtysomething goes through a messy divorce and crushing depression and decides to spend a celibate year "finding herself" in Italy (by eating pasta), India (at an Ashram), and Indonesia (by living with a medicine man). I actually really liked Elizabeth Gilbert, who is funny and wry and describes depression in a very believable, sympathetic way. Then I discovered that she didn't just head off on a spiritual journey and come home desperate to share it in a book. She pitched her travel plan to a publisher, who gave her a book advance to underwrite her trip! Most "real" people don't have their spiritual journey sponsored by a major publisher, and running away from her problems to find spiritual enlightenment on other continents isn't really a model that normal people can follow. So this knowledge really tainted the book for me. On top of that, she decides to organize it into 3 sections of equal length, for a total of 108 chapters (there's a reason, but it's really not that interesting). This makes for weird pacing. The India part felt interminable, in part because she gives up her idea of traveling around, so it's 36 chapters JUST at the Ashram. And she adds kind of unrelated stories to her Indonesia "search for balance."

I really liked bits of this book. Her Italy travels were interesting when she wasn't whining about her rebound lover ("I love David! But David always pulls away when I get clingy! But the sex was great! But I wasn't fulfilled!" and blah blah blah) or lusting after hot young Italian guys. Things really slowed down in India because really, life at an Ashram isn't that exciting. And frankly, she could have done this at an Ashram in New York, for all she experiences in India. Her buddy there is an annoying Texan who calls her "Groceries." And Gilbert herself complains about spiritual memoirs being boring in their descriptions of spiritual awakenings. I have to agree after reading her going on and on about hers. In Indonesia, things picked back up, and I realized I was enjoying her writing again. It took me a minute to figure out why. In India, Gilbert decides to take a vow of silence, which she quickly rescinds. But she muses that maybe she should talk about herself less. It's when she tells the stories about interesting people in Indonesia that I enjoyed it the most. Obviously, she didn't actually internalize her resolution, given how excessively long the book is and how filled with "Me, me, me!" And I soured on the Indonesia part when she goes on and on about a land deal she royally messed up, then capitulates to a determined Brazilian guy's constant suggestions of having sex. (By the way, I did NOT need to know about her fantasies about certain ex-presidents. Ew.) This is where it just got nauseating, reading about him telling her over and over that she's beautiful, but that's not the worst part. The worst part is that she had committed to celibacy while she "found herself," and she couldn't even stick to that for a year. And after she goes on and on in the Italy part about how she loses herself when she's in a relationship, I was so disappointed that she seemed to forget about that entirely.

Is it a good sign that I got so mad at this book? I don't really think so. There will be a lot to talk about at book club, I suppose, but ultimately, this was an unpleasant read. And not in the "I'm being challenged" or "It's emotionally difficult to read" way. The underlying premise and structure did not work for me, and the whole book felt pointless after I read the ending. I know that a lot of people love this book, but it's not one I'd recommend.

3 comments:

GBK Gwyneth said...

I'm a big fan of travel narratives, but this book annoyed me as well....

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

This one is on my night table, and has been there for longer than I'd care to admit ... and I'm thinking it might be time to give it back unread to my mother. It seems as if a lot of people have very similar feelings and thoughts on this one, and I'm guessing they are ones I would likely share. Thanks for the review ... and for allowing me to make room on the night table for something better! :)

Wrighty - said...

Thank you for this! I had heard about it for a long time and had the chance to get it for 50c at a used book sale. I could not get into it, gave up and passed it on to family. A few months later I saw it again for 50c and got it. It still didn't appeal to me so it's going for good this time. I thought it was just me that didn't like it so I'm glad to know I'm not alone. It's just not my kind of book.