I do. Don’t I?
Elizabeth Gilbert follows her bestseller about finding love with a slightly less winning consideration of marriage
The only event more hazardous to a writer’s career than a book’s catastrophic failure is its meteoric success. Hatching the successor to a book that sold 7 million copies in more than 30 countries is particularly challenging when the blockbuster owed its appeal to the author’s self-deprecating, aw-shucks charm in the face of difficult circumstances. Readers loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love’’ because they fell for Gilbert herself, and their affection owed largely to the way female readers identified with her situation - reeling from a nasty divorce, just dumped by her rebound lover, massively uncertain about her future - and the inspiration they took from her courage and candor as she recovered her equilibrium through Italian food, yogic meditation, and a lovely new man.
So how do you follow a fairy-tale ending?
“Committed,’’ Gilbert’s fourth book - there were a pair of non-bestsellers before her first memoir - begins with a note acknowledging the difficulty in following what Gilbert calls her “megajumbo international bestseller,” then goes on to probe the very institution that is implied but never described in fairy tales: marriage. The book picks up soon after “Eat, Pray, Love’’ leaves off, when the author and Felipe, the Brazilian world traveler she met in Bali, confront a bureaucratic dilemma: His temporary visa to the United States is yanked after the couple abuses its provisions and the only way to live together in any kind of bliss, according to an improbably friendly Homeland Security officer, is to wed. (It should be noted that another charm of Gilbert’s work, and likely of the author herself, is how many people she encounters turn out to be, in her telling at least, improbably friendly.)
It takes nearly a year for the couple to amass the proper paperwork and receive the necessary clearances, giving them ample time to travel through Asia, living in cheap hotels (because crazy bestsellerdom hasn’t quite struck yet) and thinking, talking, and reading about marriage itself. The resulting book braids together Gilbert’s research - or, really, her sometimes breathless, often engaging retelling of her research - and her own musings on her first marriage, her parents’ marriage, and her future marriage to Felipe. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that in the end, the two do tie the knot; the suspense here is in how Gilbert will justify the decision to herself.
Readers of “Eat, Pray, Love’’ will remember her anguish over a brutal divorce, but Gilbert has bigger problems with marriage; her skepticism is at least as political as it is personal. In tracing the institution’s history, she casts an especially critical eye on marriage’s often disastrous effect on women and its sometimes-vexed relationship to both spiritual and earthly authorities. Most illuminating is her chronicling of hostility by early Christian leaders toward marriage (they preferred celibacy). St. Paul famously said that “it is better to marry than to burn,” but Gilbert points out that this is “perhaps the most begrudging endorsement of matrimony in human history,” and it wasn’t until the 13th century that the pope took any interest in marriage (and then only because the church sought to control the flow of land and assets that were rearranged by it).
Once codified by both state and church, marriage became increasingly devastating in its subjugation of women, who were no longer considered legally separate human beings once married (a situation that persisted into the 1970s and ’80s in the United States, when laws remained on the books permitting, for instance, rape within marriage).
Despite the successes of the first, second, and third waves of feminism, marriage is where the battle of the sexes comes down most firmly on the side of men; by any measure, men fare better when married, while women come out worse. Yet women, Gilbert points out, are often the ones pushing for marriage, yearning for that proposal, that engagement ring, that big wedding and honeymoon. To her great credit, she seeks to find out why - despite an unfairness so well known the sociologists have a name for it, the “Marriage Benefit Imbalance” - those of us on the wrong side of that scale still seek matrimony so ardently. And although Gilbert pursues the paradox by asking friends and family for their theories, I wish she had gone further in exploring the role of internalized sexism or assumed helplessness in the face of the romantic imperative.
Sections on divorce, infidelity, child rearing follow a similar pattern - fascinating facts and that endlessly charming voice - but each feels as if it could use more digging. Still, there are some surprises. I worried Gilbert was tripping lazily along the path to repeat bestsellerdom, only to come upon her impassioned call for same-sex marriage equality. And really, it feels a little churlish to ask for more scholarship from someone who so freely acknowledges that it’s not her job (as she writes in her acknowledgments, she’s “not a professional academic, nor a sociologist, nor a psychologist, nor an expert on marriage”).
I have to confess: I was not one of those women (it was mostly women) who made “Eat, Pray, Love’’ the publishing sensation of 2007. In truth, I was an Elizabeth Gilbert skeptic; both book and author sounded annoyingly chirpy, spiritual, middlebrow. Buying the earlier memoir in preparation for reading “Committed’’ I felt like a walking cliché - it didn’t help that I picked it up in an airport bookstore, where it was still one of the titles facing out - but to my surprise the book worked. I found myself almost immediately disarmed, laughing and crying like a curmudgeon at a Frank Capra movie. Its successor isn’t quite as charming - Gilbert’s zippy, zingy prose works less well in the longer, more traditionally structured chapters. Then there’s the larger problem of Gilbert’s own changed circumstances: When vulnerable authenticity is your stock in trade, a sexy Brazilian partner, globe-trotting itinerary, and multi-million-dollar bank account start to seem like liabilities, not assets. Only a terrifically self-assured and self-aware writer could navigate these hazards without succumbing to smugness or whining, and somehow Gilbert pulls it off. She even manages to make her choice, which is after all a very traditional one, sound daring, even bold:
“The leap into marriage has not come easily for me, but perhaps it shouldn’t be easy. Perhaps it’s fitting that I needed to be persuaded into marriage - even vigorously persuaded - especially because I am a woman, and because matrimony has not always treated women kindly.’’ What she offers in “Committed,’’ as in “Eat, Pray, Love,’’ is not scholarship or even argument, but rather voice. Her genius is in flipping an old literary script - she’s not addressing us as her dear readers, but instead acting as our dear writer, an ideal friend: smart but not intimidating, wise but not smarmy, kind but imperfect, funny in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves. So what if this book, too, culminates in a fairy-tale ending? We’ll have to wait for the sequel to see if Gilbert lives happily ever after.
Kate Tuttle is a writer and an editor who lives in Greater Boston .