I didn’t intend to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on marriage, Committed, largely because of a couple bad reviews and lack of interest in the topic, but then I saw it was available at my library, and I thought I would give it a try. I’m very glad I did. Having read two of Gilbert’s books now, including Eat, Pray, Love (of course!), I have turned into a Gilbert fan.
I’m aware that there has been some backlash against Gilbert, mostly because of the popularity of EPL, and also, I’m guessing, because she had the extraordinary good luck to be able to nurse a broken heart while spending a year traveling around the world. And at the end, she has the extraordinary good luck to fall in love again. She’s sometimes seen as spoiled and self-indulgent, out having adventures, dashing off books, making tons of money, and basically being a frivolous, privileged person. Although I haven’t seen it yet, I’m afraid that the movie of EPL where Gilbert is played by Julia Roberts doesn’t help matters much.
Well, that’s highly irritating. Gilbert has been doing what writers do: she proposes book ideas, gets advances, does her research, and writes her books. And she’s good at it. Her books are so very readable — engaging, funny, open, smart — that she makes it looks easy, and I know it’s not. Calling her spoiled and indulgent is to forget that there are tons of male travel writers, Bill Bryson types, who do exactly what has done. Except, I suppose, that they don’t write about their broken hearts. Do the people who dislike her writing feel uncomfortable about the personal nature of it? That’s one of its strongest features, I say. One of the things that makes her so appealing is that she seems fearless: it takes enormous bravery to make yourself as vulnerable as she does. Her popularity has a lot to do with her willingness to pour her heart out onto the page, and to do it in a way that’s entertaining, moving, and, sometimes, wise.
I don’t buy the argument that writing a book, or multiple books, about oneself is inherently self-indulgent. What matters is the manner in which you do so. Are you writing about yourself in such a way that others recognize themselves in your story? Are you reaching toward something larger than yourself? Or, are you just a really, really good writer of the sort who can turn any subject into something worth reading? Then by all means, please, write endlessly about yourself. I’d love to read it.
Gilbert’s writing style, in both EPL and Committed, veers occasionally toward chattiness in a way that doesn’t work for me, but to make up for the moments of glibness and the occasional bad jokes, there are tons of passages where she gets the tone just right. She moves easily from personal experience to passages on the history of marriage, from descriptions of travel in Southeast Asia to memories of her mother’s and her grandmother’s marriages. Surely I don’t need to say much about the idea behind Committed, do I? She was basically forced to marry her Brazilian boyfriend Felipe when he is detained at the U.S. border and refused entry and they learn that marriage is the only way they can live together in the U.S. The problem is that they both knew they never wanted to marry again. The book is Gilbert’s attempt to make her peace with the institution before she finds herself a wife once again.
The book isn’t perfect — she comes across as strangely naive about the variety of beliefs about love and marriage and how they often have little to do with each other — but in its best moments, it really is a good read. I’ve come to think that the best essayists and memoir writers are those whose voices are so captivating you don’t want them to stop talking. Gilbert makes a marvelous companion.