Committed: Does It Top Eat, Pray, Love?
by Jo Keroes
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared there are no second acts in American lives. If you’ve read most of the reviews of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Committed, you’d be inclined to agree. A scathing review by Janet Maslin in the daily NYTimes and ambivalent ones elsewhere, in Salon.com and the SF Chronicle, suggest that readers who were fans of the madly successful Eat, Pray, Love aren’t at all happy with Gilbert this time. Even Curtis Sittenfeld’s gentler critique in the Sunday Times Book Review isn’t free of disappointment with Gilbert’s follow-up effort, nor is Ariel Levy’s in The New Yorker, which mostly surveys Gilbert’s findings. For those of you who aren’t either literary wonks or Elizabeth Gilbert fans, let me catch you up.
At the end of Eat, Pray, Love Gilbert falls in love with a Brazilian-born businessman eighteen years her senior. An Australian citizen and gem dealer, Felipe, as she dubs him, has moves home to Philadelphia with Gilbert. Because he’s not a citizen, though, he must leave the country every three months for several weeks and then return. Since both he and Gilbert are happy travelers, this upending of routine becomes itself a routine they can live with comfortably - until the day when Felipe is arrested at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport by Homeland Security and told he must leave the country immediately. The only way he can ever come back, they inform the couple, is to marry an American citizen – Gilbert. But there’s a hitch. Felipe and Elizabeth have every intention of spending the rest of their lives together. They have even held their own private commitment ceremony, complete with gold bands. Secure in their private commitment to one another, they have no need – and indeed are downright hostile to its validation by the state. Having survived awful divorces, they have vowed not to marry. Now, ironically, if they are to stay together, Elizabeth and Felipe must break that vow and substitute another they never intended to take. Resigned, but not happy about it, they leave the country together and for ten months and hang out around South Asia, waiting for the paperwork to come through that will allow them to return to the U.S. A successful self-supporting writer even before the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon, convinced that marriage has never been a benefit to women, Gilbert uses this time to come to terms with it. Her strategy is to learn everything she can about marriage as it has changed and adapted over time. She learns some fascinating stuff: that early Christianity deplored marriage because it divided an individual’s loyalty to God; that in 19th century China, a woman from a wealthy family could marry a dead man in something called a “ghost marriage,” thereby ensuring the preservation of her family’s wealth and, incidentally, her own independence and freedom from child-bearing; that until relatively recently, marriage had nothing to do with love and everything to do with the preservation of property and the perpetuation of familial power; that in fact, it is only when marriage and love become linked that divorce becomes commonplace.
Those negative reviewers of Committed object to what they see as a structural problem with the book: it’s neither a scholarly treatise on the history of marriage nor a straight-on chatty memoir but an awkward hybrid. When Gilbert is talking about herself and her own adventures, it’s lively and interesting, they say, but those sections of Committed are undermined by the socio/historical passages. It’s very difficult to blend serious research with an amiable informal voice, but this is precisely Gilbert’s gift and why I like this book so much. Whether she’s describing her encounter with a group of Hmong women, eliciting their decidedly un-romantic views on marriage (they don’t expect their spouses to fulfill them, only to fulfill their clearly defined spousal roles), or detailing the surprising mating habits of seagulls, the beguiling Gilbert voice – smart, witty, self-aware and most of all conversational – speaks. To a scholar, the historical mutations of marriage as an institution can be inherently interesting; to a non-academic reader, perhaps not. It is no small talent to be able to convey what might be considered dry historical information in lively, spirited form. It’s the ease and consistency with which Gilbert alternates the theoretical with her personal dilemma that makes the book interesting. We never forget that she has a stake in what she discovers about marriage through the ages: she’s trying to convince herself, after all, in her own words “to find some small place of comfort there.” She finds it, of course; that’s never in doubt from the beginning. There are some lovely, even lyrical passages about Liz and Felipe sharing their histories, balancing the tricky tension between independence and intimacy, not to mention one partner who likes to stay put with another born to wander. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Committed is a journey. This time, the personal becomes both political and intellectual. If there’s less suspense, less intensity to the question of what will happen – yes, Reader, she marries him - there’s more substance. The woman who, according to her sister, made marriage sound like a colonoscopy, makes her peace with it as much with her mind as with her heart.
MommyTracked Review of Eat, Pray, Love