While Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book is not anywhere near as juicy as Eat, Pray, Love, it did manage to keep me reading till the morning hours the past two nights. This is the book that will probably be known by most as “the follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love,” which, like being the child of a celebrity, confers a burden so enormous that it would be difficult for any writer to overcome. If she had not been Liz Gilbert and this had not been Son of EPL, we might just deem this an interesting patchwork quilt of a book by an insightful writer on the topic marriage. Or more specifically, how a marriage-fearing woman who is forced by the government to marry the man she loves eventually makes an uneasy peace with the institution.
Gilbert had actually penned a 500-page first draft of this book that she trashed. I mean, completely set aside. Just the thought of that makes me cringe. Her rationale was that its perky tone was no longer that of her nearing-40 self. Hmmm. Yet this was the voice that drove EPL, a voice that 7 million readers were altogether fond of. And thus, I found myself wanting to gently inquire, “Could I just page through your trash can for a few hours?”
Yes, this is a more mature voice, and maturity is, well…often a desirable quality, especially in doctors and barristers and funeral directors. But some of what we look to younger works for is their youthful joie de vivre, and EPL had that in spades. It was truly a coming-of-age book, almost a bildungsroman, of a woman who deeply comes to know herself after a painful divorce prompts her to question her life and life itself. In it, she takes us through three of life’s most powerful moments: eating (feeding oneself), finding a spiritual path, and falling passionately in love-while traipsing through some of the most romantic geography on Earth. Now, if there’s a more irresistible premise, please tell me. EPL was like a torte. I savored every rich page and in fact delayed reading the final few chapters, as I never wanted the adventure, the jokes, the insights to end. As I’m sure Gilbert was keenly and painfully aware, that sort of appeal is nigh-impossible to top-or follow.
She could have simply kept going, stitching together outtakes from EPL into a second act that readers would have hungrily devoured. But to her credit, she was attempting to grow stylistically as a writer, satiate her intellectual curiosity, and share the results of her research. However, as with any monograph, as fascinating as the information uncovered may be (and it is), there’s little plot. Here we enter Wait, Think, Wait territory. Gilbert has embodied the Hanged Man of the tarot deck, on a trip through the hell via a holding pattern in the airspace of Homeland Security. However, as maddening and frightening this place is, it doesn’t offer enough of the sort of dramatic trajectory that made EPL famous. To make matters worse, Gilbert opts to lose her narrative tension almost immediately when she tells us that ultimately she will marry. A little “will she or won’t she?” could have bought her some momentum.
Gilbert’s forte are her interviews with people of other cultures, often those bearing scant resemblance to modern-day America’s, such as the Hmong of Vietnam. I greatly admire her ability to establish instant rapport with her interview subjects. Here is this tall, blonde, white, American female who drops into a remote country such as Vietnam for a few days, immediately finds a 12-year-old translator, then sets about quizzing three generations of Hmong women on their feelings about their marriages-after little or no introduction. Granted, just her very being is an immense novelty to them, and I’m sure her lovely spirit warms them up, but trust? I am always amazed by the straight-from-the-heart details she manages to wrest from utter strangers-strangers who don’t even realize that she’s a remarkably funny, highly intelligent, incisive woman because they don’t even speak English. It is here where she sparkles most brilliantly, and here where I wish she’d lingered longer, as in EPL.
But curiously, Gilbert foregoes the luster of her real-world anecdotes to lead with extended passages about the history of marriage. And despite some fascinating facts, they seem to go on for many pages at a time, with little of her trademark humor. The “Marriage and History” chapter is 32 pages long, tossed in right as she starts to get some traction and grinding things to the halt like a droning Sunday sermon. It’s sad because this could have been a reasonably quick fix. Her research simply needed to be assimilated more, spoken through her own lovely voice, and lavishly punctuated with fine examples from her globetrotting.
Part of this chapter is needlessly soapbox-y, specifically her assertion that “gay people can and should have the right to marry.” Well, yes, obviously-and I think her average reader would share that sentiment without its even having to be proffered or expounded on. Perhaps I’m overestimating her target audience, but this bit of preaching to the choir could have been nixed.
As Gilbert’s editor, I would have sent her back to the parts that really sing: Her obvious affection for people and fascination with other cultures. Her capacity to sort through the noise and cull her own truths, after assimilating the perspectives of others. And her ability to turn our cherished paradigms on their ears by presenting radically different points of view. I will say that she does do some of the latter when she interviews the Hmong women, who seem to possess few romanticized notions about marriage-or the specialness of personal identity overall. To these people (whom she characterizes as throwbacks to ancient history), “one man is the same as the next.” Unless the translator wasn’t doing her job, they seemingly can’t even grasp how a woman would fall in love with a man’s specific qualities or personal za za zsu. They simply don’t differentiate themselves from others-a fascinating concept, especially for Westerners hung up on their own personal punch lists of traits they bring to the party and those they can’t live without. And, as Gilbert discovers, these marriages tend to endure far longer than ones driven by love and personal preference. As odd as it may seem, arranged marriages statistically stand a better chance of lasting. And thus, she worries-and worries and worries-that her own marriage to Felipe may not.
The book also lends many perspectives on marriage of which the solipsistic Westerner steeped in the culture of $40,000 weddings may be completely unaware. For example, in the 14th and 15th centuries, nuptials were extremely drab affairs, conducted in street clothes at home and lasting for just a few minutes. There were no websites, no destination weddings, no caterers, no videographers, and certainly no guests boogeying down to I Can Love You Like That.
But I really started to perk up about 2/3 of the way through, when Gilbert takes a sudden left turn, becoming much more personal, as she sifts the marriages and child-rearing experiences of her matrilineage. The excellent questions she raises about what constitutes happiness and satisfaction within the confines of marriage and rearing children provoke much thought, as they ask what we sacrifice or subsume in order to sustain a long-term marriage or family.
Despite its many strengths, Committed has still left me a bit cold, and I can’t tell if that’s because I so adored its predecessor or due to its blatantly patched-together quality. I found myself wondering why her editor had apparently fallen asleep on the job–and how I might apply for the position next time around. Give me a jingle, Liz.