It’s a book you might be embarrassed to read in public. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love has gained a lot of praise and a whole lot more criticism over the years.
But love it or hate it, it has popularity like no other. It blew up when it came out in 2006. It stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list for 187 weeks. Columbia Pictures purchased the rights to the memoir starring Julia Roberts. Oprah loved it and couldn’t stop talking about it for two episodes on her show.
All is not hunky-dory, though. Critics argue that Gilbert’s tale is of privilege and self-absorption alone. Each “problem” Gilbert faces may raise your eyebrows (her husband got both their houses in the divorce: umm, how sad?). Tom White said Gilbert leaves out the “awkward, unresolved” stuff and you “know how the story is going to end right at the beginning.” Many say that it’s like watching a Jennifer Aniston movie.
Given all the love-hate relationship with Eat, Pray, Love on the internet (and many other solo women travelogues like Wild), would you even enjoy reading it? Let’s find out.
What’s the story?
Elizabeth Gilbert starts off by just entering her thirties, going through a brutal divorce, breaking up from her rebound relationship, and showing every symptom of depression.
She feels compelled to have kids and yet doesn’t want them. She is successful in every manner of the word but feels her life does not resemble her.
So, she packs her bags for a year and goes out to Itlay (to eat), India (to pray), and Indonesia (to love). The book that came out of this travel experience is Eat, Pray, Love.
“But is it such a bad thing to live like this for just a little while? Just for a few months of one’s life, is it so awful to travel through time with no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than that it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favourite fountain? And then to do it again the next day?”
You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking it’s a travelogue. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that it’s a memoir. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking it’s a spiritual enlightenment journey. Gilbert has all of those things in this book.
Gilbert stays in each location for four months. This means that she doesn’t get a lot of time to immerse into the cultures of these places fully. But it’s sufficient enough to keep you hooked. Each country has 36 chapters devoted to Gilbert’s experiences.
What are the themes and writing styles?
One thing that is commended in Eat, Pray, Love — even by its critics — is its storytelling. Elizabeth Gilbert often feels like a friend talking to you over brunch. But let me get this straight: there’s a very specific Gilbert-humor in the book that either you like or you don’t.
If you don’t love that Gilbert personality, you probably wouldn’t like this book.
Another thing you can expect as one of the themes is raw honesty. Gilbert acknowledges what the reader might be thinking, gives weight to her privilege, and is true to herself. The book also clearly recognizes that Gilbert’s experiences are limited in each country because of the short time frame.
The author does not claim to know more than she truly does. Gilbert is conscious that her experience is hers alone — and not universal.
Overall, Eat, Pray, Love is entertaining enough to keep you reading till the end. Gilbert’s writing style will make sure you stay, even though you might not totally be on board with her journey.
Shortcomings of Eat, Pray, Love
This is a heavy section because our culture has made Eat, Pray, Love a symbol of elite privilege, colonialism, and New Age narcissism.
As many times as Gilbert’s journey is called healing, it is also called self-absorbed and saturated with privilege. Who could afford to take a year off and travel to 3 countries to “find themselves?”
Another common criticism is that Gilbert’s journey is “too neat” and that her experiences leave out the messy, awkward, unresolved details of real life. Her journey is often said to be all goody-goody and yet lacking in any true improvement or growth.
The book is also looked down upon because it does not immerse itself in the culture of Itlay, India, and Indonesia as deeply as a reader might expect. Gilbert meets Texans and other tourists with similar backgrounds and too few people actually from those countries. This makes her experience a little bit surfacy rather than having more depth.
In the writing style, while the “Itlay” bit is a breeze to read, the “India” bit is a bit of a drag and seems like it could go on forever. The last “Indonesia” bit is a good balance between the two.
I personally love both Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love. There are aspects of the book I do not like — the India bit is too stretched — but overall, I’d recommend this book for sure.
Yes, the book is laden with white privilege and touristy explorations rather than cultural ones, but Gilbert does her best to acknowledge both of those things. In my opinion, that is the best she can do.
If you have made up your mind to not hear what a rich white woman in her 30s getting divorced has to say about her travels, if nothing she says will change your mind, I recommend you skip this book.
The criticism I find the most ridiculous is that the book is “too tidy” and Gilbert seems like she has the best luck ever. Because, does this mean that if she had gone through something traumatic, something dark, the book would’ve been “truer” or “more interesting?”
Just something to think about.
“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”