(Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)
A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage
Viking: 286 pp., $26.95
It's impossible to talk about Elizabeth Gilbert's new memoir without first talking about her previous one, "Eat, Pray, Love" -- not because "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage" is in any literal sense a sequel but because the success of "Eat, Pray, Love" drags on the new book like a lead ball and chain.
No one is more aware of that than Gilbert herself. She opens this book with a note to the reader, essentially addressing the difficulty of having to follow up the hugely popular story of a spiritual journey to heal a broken heart that has been translated into 30 languages and is being made into a feature film starring Julia Roberts. Its bestseller ranking is measured in years, not weeks. Oh, the horror of getting a two-book deal from a publisher, only to have the first unexpectedly tap a profound zeitgeist of millions of (mainly female) readers!
Facetiousness aside, hers is a legitimate quandary for any artist (enviable though it may be to the many of us still on the obscure end of things). From beneath the amiable tone of Gilbert's introduction, a note of anxiety rings:
"It has been a bit of a perplexity for me to figure out how, after that phenomenon, I would ever write unself-consciously again. Not to act all falsely nostalgic for literary obscurity, but in the past I had always written my books in the belief that very few people would ever read them. For the most part, of course, that knowledge had always been depressing. In one critical way, though, it was comforting: If I humiliated myself too atrociously, at least there wouldn't be many witnesses. Either way, the question was now academic: I suddenly had millions of readers awaiting my next project. How in the world does one go about writing a book that will satisfy millions?"
Her solution is not to. "Ultimately I discovered that the only way I could write again at all was to vastly limit -- at least in my own imagination -- the number of people I was writing for," she also explains in her readers' note, going on to say that a mere 25 female friends and family constitute that presumably friendly audience. What's odd is that "Eat, Pray, Love" -- the story of the journeys to Italy, India and Indonesia she takes after an icky divorce and the healing she finds -- immediately strikes a more girlfriend-y chord than this rather emotionally distant work ostensibly written to and about those closest to her.
The setup for "Committed" is that two marriage-shy people are forced to put aside their fears of tying the knot if they want to stay together. Felipe, the Brazilian-born gem seller Gilbert meets at the end of "Eat, Pray, Love," has settled with her into a comfortable relationship and resettled in America. That is, until Homeland Security intervenes with the news that Felipe's too-frequent visits stateside are no longer allowed. If they want to have a life together on American soil, they have to be husband and wife. Gilbert knows that while she enjoys travel, she doesn't want to restart life as an expatriate, and since both of them are veterans of divorce and heartache, voilà! We have the substantial conflict that kicks the story into motion.
While the two float around parts of Asia waiting for months for Felipe's paperwork to be processed and approved, Gilbert contemplates the condition of Western marriage, its history, its inherent problems, its economic and sociologic implications, and finally its considerations for the individual. You already know from the subtitle that she makes peace with it, so it's no spoiler to say that in the end the two trade vows. Add in colorful anecdotes about her experiences with locals in the various countries she and Felipe visit, and that's pretty much it.
Along the way, Gilbert neatly and engagingly condenses the high points on a complex array of research on the topic of marriage. While at times her insights into it all appear a bit rote, her story makes breezily accessible much interesting, compelling research that otherwise requires committing to fascinating but denser reading, like Harvard historian Nancy Cott's "Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation" or anthropologist Helen Fisher's "Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray."
Gilbert -- who, before her mega hit, was a well-respected, guy's gal kind of journalist known for penning terrific features in such mags as GQ and Rolling Stone -- seems to have reverted to a comfortable journalistic distance in this book. The problem is that this is a first-person account and the subject is love, and her life. She tells readers that she loves Felipe, but nowhere does she show a truly unique, poignant moment. She talks of her anguish about marriage, but it is never proved in the actions between them. Gilbert is far too skilled not to be entertaining, but forgive a reader thirsting for more emotion. Marriage is a mystery, the saying goes, and so it remains.
Dunn is the author of "Faith in Carlos Gomez:
A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation."