There has been a flurry of negative pre-release assumptions, from some of my favourite female writers amongst others, dismissing both book and adaptation on Twitter and in the press. The brilliant Lindy West was not a fan (the savvy Telegraph snapped her up for this cutting review) and I’m sure others will follow. Gilbert is accused of being smug, self-obsessed, hypocritical and clichéd in a ‘moany rich woman finds herself’ sort of way, and on these grounds the book is deemed worthless chick lit. I can’t say I agree. While, on paper, her New York existence prior to her travels might be deemed privileged (published author & journalist, wealthy husband, big house, friends, parties) the point of the opening is exactly that – on paper, her life is perfection. Her chronic sadness is openly based on her guilt that she isn’t happier, that she can’t make her marriage work and that she finds she doesn’t want a baby to complete the domestic picture. I have rarely read a writer more frank about her own shortcomings, selfishness and neuroses. This is, I believe, why so many women found the book refreshing and absorbing: we all have meltdowns, panics and periods of unhappiness. Yes, a lot of it is described in group-therapy schtick, but that’s how contemporary Americans communicate. This self-awareness makes us Brits uncomfortable, but also with a slight hint of envy at being able to admit to your own issues. The writer dwells on her own self more in this book than most people will in a lifetime, but she does it with an educated finesse that makes it palatable.
Whatever her motives, a newly-single Gilbert decided to end the pretence of her glossy city life and visit places that fascinated her. The tripartite structure of the book reflects the poetry the narrator finds in everything she encounters; the neat introduction describes how her tale is divided into 108 small stories, the number having spiritual significance in Yogic philosophy. Whatever her sentimental reasons for conveying her story thus, it worked for me. The small, almost isolated anecdotes are each a charming peek into a completely self-centred adventure (in the best possible way.) We meet her new friends, hear their stories, but more often than not we are privy to her own thoughts and ponderings on life. The narrator is shaken up time and time again by natural beauty, the range of human experience and the ability of others to remain smiling, in a positive look at self-discovery if ever there was one.
But the snobbery over this memoir and its subject matter is not only mystifying, it has eclipsed all critical and public acclaim the book attracted when published in 2006. I was really annoyed when the Daily-bloody-Mail ran a ‘novelty’ feature about their egotistical columnist Liz Jones taking the same trip, making a direct comparison to Jones’ preoccupation with herself that disregards all the beauty of the original. Elizabeth Gilbert is apologetic many times in the novel for her overthinking of things, and relays her joy and satisfaction with the world and its inhabitants far more than her misery at her own situation. Her gift is her ability to tell the stories of others and to put the vividness of a moment on the page. The only thing they have in common is daring to think their own lives might be worth writing about. Maybe the problem is that women are not supposed to be selfish, in any circumstances. But regardless of background, money earned and property owned (and Gilbert started life on a Christmas tree farm in Connecticut, not Park Avenue) I don’t think the book is just a whinefest about her rich Western malaise. She gives good reasons for her escape, including her dependence on men for happiness - having been in relationships basically her entire adult life - and her husband’s venomous approach to their divorce flattening her self esteem. I have nothing but respect for someone who is determined to lift themselves out of the torpor of depression, be that with a U-turn in career, ending a relationship or just taking off in search of something new. But some women seem to be embarrassed by such shirking of domestic responsibility. It is puzzling to me, as there seems no better time to take off than following the painful end to a childless marriage. There is an argument that we don’t all have the money to traipse off and sit on mountains every time we feel sad, but she paid for the trip with the publishers' advance for the book – offered to a result of her own reputation as writer, built up by years of hard work.
Gilbert's choice of destinations was also interesting to me. Rome I can completely relate to, where she essentially indulged her taste for fresh, rustic Italian food, the Italian language and the stunning architecture. This was the most moving part for me, as she nurtures new friendships and finds freedom in pursuing nothing but pleasure. There is a sublime passage where Liz and her new friends celebrate Thanksgiving in the Italian mountains, and she realizes just how many things she is thankful for. At another point, she finds the strength to persevere with her Yogic studies by focusing on a nephew she is fiercely protective of. In moments like these I found myself so in tune with Gilbert’s voice that I felt the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye or the surges of happiness as she narrated them. Make what you will of the cliché of a Westerner dabbling in Yoga, religion and Eastern philosophy, but you can’t deny the power of the writing. In India, her language was more difficult to me as her openness to the idea of a non-specific God as well as energy, meditation and enlightenment are so far from my own views on the world. But it is her hope that something greater than herself can enrich her life, rather than a preachy ‘knowledge’ of this, that still managed to charm me. In Bali, her love affair with its quirky and laid-back population is filled with admiration rather than touristy condescension, and the charismatic medicine man she learns from is one of my favourite figures. Perhaps I found the book so arresting because the thought of leaving my world behind and venturing out alone is both terrifying and alluring to me; in all honesty I don’t think I currently have the balls, but I’d love to in the future, and the fact is so many people’s responsibilities and duties prevent it from ever being an option.
Whether the film is fabulous or a flop, I hope people will still read the book if they find themselves intrigued, as I did this month. Whether you are going through an introspective period yourself or simply want to travel vicariously, this is a fascinating example of someone taking themselves out of their comfort zone and actively trying to widen their perspective. Not only this, but the uncommon spirit of Gilbert’s diary-memoir style shows an appreciation throughout of the beauty, poetry and wonderful contrasts of the world and its communities, something rare and to be cherished in a book. I hope the coven of female media types scoffing at the whole concept stop and think about such things now and again; if not, I know which experience I’d rather have. Review of the film to follow...