It’s no wonder Eat Pray Love created a world-wide phenomenon in book sales (and simultaneous world-wide gasping in recognition). The book was really good. Even though I’ve not been through a heart-rending, psyche-altering divorce like author Elizabeth Gilbert, I could still immerse myself utterly in the book, and in the emotion imparted so eloquently by this most creative and evocative writer (incidentally, Gilbert was a successful published author well before Eat Pray Love).
Gilbert’s ‘follow-up’ book, Committed, was therefore highly coveted by this Gilbert fan – yet another in a long, long line of fans that pushed the book to the Number One spot on the NY Times Best Sellers List mid-January, after only 10 days on the shelves.
It was interesting to start Gilbert’s book with her ‘Note to the Reader’ – essentially outlining her concerns about ever being about to write unselfconsciously again, following the unprecedented success of Eat Pray Love. Mired under considerable pressure to ‘perform’ and to please a plethora of high expectation, this extremely self-effacing author became immobilised mid-draft and ended up completely scrapping her first version of Committed, starting again in an entirely new direction – and most importantly, with a new mindset.
Instead of writing for and attempting to please the ‘masses’, Gilbert instead ‘personalised’ this highly personal book and decided to write it for twenty-seven women. That’s right. Just twenty-seven. She actually lists them in the book. And when you read this list, you feel like you are being sent to the attic with the care-worn key of the most secret of diaries – a collective of secrets and emotions that would only ever have its pages thumbed and wept over by those who really matter in the author’s life.
Despite the intensely personal and emotionally revealing nature of Committed, Gilbert spend considerable time researching and carefully fleshing out her latest book with fact, figures, traditions and fascinating information on the institution that is marriage. She has dissected her book into eight lengthy chapters commencing with ‘Marriage and Surprises’ – in which she discovers she must marry her ‘affectionate Brazilian gentleman’, Felipe – else the United States Department of Homeland Security shackle him and send him on the next flight offshore.
Actually, the shackling and sending really did happen, much to Gilbert’s worst-romantic-nightmare terror. Upon one too many entries to the US on a tourist visa, her sweetheart was interrogated, handcuffed and deported – but not before being handed the sage advice that if the couple wanted to experience the earthy feel of US soil beneath their flipflops ever again, they would have to do it. Commit. Tie the knot. Get married.
The first thing Gilbert experienced when she heard this terrifying ‘commitment’ news, was a rapidly sinking heart, followed quickly by the desperate need to plan. With only minutes to hash together a plot to overcome the surreal reality the couple suddenly faced, Gilbert describes a scrabbled few moments with her love, wasting it away on incidentals like houses, bank accounts and immigration lawyers, before Felipe was indeed, shackled up and sent away.
The ensuing chapters of Committed take us through the journey that became Gilbert’s death march to matrimony. Essentially exploring her own definition of the complexities behind the marriage concept, the reader is treated to a delicately unfolding voyage of discovery and subsequent reconciliation with this archaic and, in the mind of the author, totally outdated tradition.
As the couple wander south-east Asia in a nomadic daze of pre-wedding jitters (or more accurately, immigration jitters), Gilbert regales us not only with her immigration woes, but with the cultural diversity and disparity that consistutes the institution of marriage – how it has evolved (and not evolved) over time, and how the cultural differences and expectations of such a coupling varies from country to country, heart to heart, mind to mind.
Due to the highly personal nature and honesty of the book, at times Committed begins to feel a little indulgent, and, as is the way with Gilbert’s writing style, a tad over-thought and processed. Despite the fascinating revelations she shares – both at a personal level and at a level built on history and statistics – the reader may feel a little bogged in an analytical quagmire. Is marriage and the psychological basis behind lifelong commitment really that complicated? If the legalities of marriage, in the end, are really just a piece of paper, then what’s the big deal about folding it up and tucking it into your pocket?
Those who have been through a life-altering and/or soul-destroying divorce will perhaps relate to and revel in this very pervasive analytical side to the book. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the gloriously researched historical and cultural references so eloquently presented, I realise I could never appreciate the fears and challenges Gilbert experienced on her journey to secondary wedded bliss. This inability to relate did not, however, prevent me from enjoying the ride through this writer’s psyche, to reconcile her understanding of what her union with Felipe would mean – above and beyond the right to wander the plains of US soil once again.
Despite my reluctance to become embroiled in the oft over-wrought semantics of traditional commitment, I relished and thoroughly embraced the democratic mindset Gilbert displays in the book, especially her ‘rant’ on how women are so frequently stripped of their identity once they become housewives and mothers.
I was particularly enraptured by her statement about how mothers are exulted for their ability to sacrifice themselves in order to raise children – how social conservatives describe them as ‘noble’ and ‘sacred’. Gilbert instead brings up the notion of how we might be able to work together to build a society where children can be raised and families can prosper without women having to scrape the walls of their souls bare in order to do so.
Committed is plush with the intelligent and heart-driven philosophies of this talented and most likeable author. Naught but a hardline conservative could resist the charms and openness of her beliefs and her persistent quest for the quiet understanding we all seek in life. From her fascinating exploration on the way humans think (either ‘Greek’ (democtatic) or ‘Hebrew’ (republican)) to her realisation that human beings will forever seek unity and intimacy (unfettered by many a controlling heirarchy, past and present), Gilbert ultimately learns that The Couple – independent of the Institution – will always triumph.
Love conquers all, does it not? And above everything else, Gilbert discovers this all over again in Committed. Beyond all the philosophising, it really warms the heart to know this seeker of love and understanding has folded up that little piece of paper. And tucked it in her pocket.
Committed: A sceptic makes peace with marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert is published by Bloomsbury and distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin (RRP AU$32.99).