Our church has a great book swap a few times a year. Last year, my wife picked up the best-seller Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. She read it over several months, then passed it on when she finished, saying I’d probably like it. She was right.
The book has sold a massive number of copies and its natural audience would seem to be women who might have experienced some of the travails — the breakup of a marriage — which Ms. Gilbert tells us about. But Liz Gilbert — as she calls herself in the book — is a fine writer and her writing skills quickly pulled me into her story. In the early part of the book, we hear about the breakup of Liz’s marriage and her disastrous on-the-rebound romance with David in excruciating detail. It’s painful to watch and was probably painful to write. Liz has fine narrative skills and makes us want to come along when she decides to escape this mess. Bear in mind, this book is a memoir, but some of the plot twists feel suspiciously like the work of an accomplished novelist. So at the darkest hour, she manages to find a way to do one of her favorite things — travel — and turn it into a paid writing assignment. Nice work if you can get it, I guess. But truly, the book literally takes off when Liz hops on a plane and lands in Italy. She’s put distance between herself and her stateside problems and now decides to do an indulgent thing. Her goal in Italy is to learn to speak Italian.
So begins her overseas journey. Liz has arranged a three-part adventure. She’ll go to Italy to learn that language, go to India to pray at an Ashram organized by her guru and then return to Bali where she’d met a witch doctor who invited her to come back sometime. Really? Yes, really. Liz is incredibly self-absorbed, so we hear every little detail as she dives into each part of her adventure. But she’s clearly enjoying herself in Italy, as she works to learn the language and eats an amazing amount of wonderful food, not only in Rome, but in other regions and cities including Naples, Sicily and Florence. Clearly, this is a kind of therapy and it felt like I was gaining weight in harmony with her just reading about all of the pastas, meat dishes, cheeses and wines which she and her friends consume.
After Liz has eaten her way through Italy, it’s time for something completely different. She flies to India and travels down many back roads to find her way to the Ashram. Earlier in the book, Liz learned to pray out of desperation during some of her darkest times and was intrigued by a woman guru she’d met through her former boyfriend David. The woman had taken over an Ashram in India — essentially a site where followers go to retreat and spend days and weeks in prayer, chanting and yoga — and Liz decides that she needs to spend several weeks at the Ashram before taking time to travel through other parts of India. Liz is quickly forced to leave behind the hedonistic persona she’d constructed in Italy and replace it with — what? Ah, turns out this is the next quest. Liz needs to adapt to the monastic life of the Ashram and her over-the-top extroverted personality finds the adjustment is very hard. But this woman is nothing if not game, so she gradually find ways to bring herself into harmony with the sense of the Ashram, with help from several other devotees, including a wise Texan named Richard, who pushed her to just let go. By the end of her time in India, Liz has learned a lot and found an inner peace which takes her far from where she’d been at the beginning of the trip. She had learned how to pray.
Next stop, Bali. Liz had loved Bali on a previous visit and had been befriended by an older man — a healer — who told her she should come back to visit. Okay, a bit strange, but by now, as readers, we’re living in Liz Gilbert land, where the strange is commonplace and coincidences play out in uncanny ways. With some effort, she is able to find the village of the man, who it turns out is well known, and she finds a place to stay in the village where he lives. The man at first doesn’t recall Liz at all, but gradually remembers a very sad woman he’d met two years prior. Ah, that Liz. Liz is good at making friends and she eventually not only spends a lot of time with the male healer, but also meets a female healer named Wayan. She and Wayan get along very well and Liz starts to weave herself into the fabric of the small village in Bali. But beneath the placid surface, Bali has a very complex system of mores and customs which are very hard for outsiders to fully fathom. Wayan has some issues finding the right kind of place to live and Liz tries to help out in her inimitable way. Naturally, it’s a lot messier than it seems and Liz gets in way over her head. So that means it’s time for her to start thinking about — you guessed it — love. She meets some of the men who are visiting Bali and gradually starts to re-discover the social self she’d put aside during the dark times with her husband and David.
I’ll leave the rest for the reader to find out how it all turns out. Liz Gilbert is a masterful storyteller, so she pulls us along on her quest and we do want to find out what happens. Everybody has their dark times and need to find ways to recover and care about life again. Liz Gilbert takes us on her journey, a quest for renewal after her fairy tale life has been crushed. It’s a good read and I’m glad I took the plunge.