Having it All
Christine McCarthy McMorris
In November of 2003, a moderately successful 29 year-old writer named
Elizabeth Gilbert found herself sobbing on her bathroom floor at four in the
morning, despairing that the American dream of a husband, big house, and
motherhood was not what she wanted. Then, at her bleakest moment, something
surprising (for a raised-Protestant/mostly secular New Englander) occurred:
“I started to pray. You know—like, to God.”
Three years later, Gilbert’s dark night of the soul—and her year-long
experience of self-discovery and conversations with God—had sold 5 million
copies in 30 languages, spent 85 weeks (and counting) on the New York
Times best seller list for non-fiction paperbacks, and propelled her to
Time’s 2008 list of the Most Influential People.
How did Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy,
India and Indonesia do it?
The idea for the book came out of Gilbert’s experience as a travel writer:
She spent four months eating her way through Italy, four months experiencing
God at an ashram in India, and four months in Indonesia, looking for
balance…and falling in love with her now-husband, an older Brazilian
The conceit of Eat, Pray, Love is that each “chapter” represents one
of the 108 beads on a japa mala, a meditation necklace. Bead 96 captures the
flavor of Gilbert’s writing. She’s in Bali and has kissed the new man in her
life for the first time, cooked potatoes, masturbated, and meditated for an
hour the next morning until:
I finally felt it again—that specific, constant, clear-sky, unrelated to
anything, never-shifting, nameless and changeless perfection of my own
happiness. That happiness which is better, truly, than anything I have
experienced anywhere else on this earth, and includes salty, buttery kisses
and even more saltier and more buttery potatoes.
The hard cover version
was published in February 2006 by Viking Press (which had bankrolled the
entire adventure) to mixed reviews.
Ericka Schickel of the Los Angeles Times called it a “delectable
read” but noted that Gilbert’s “hard-won happiness lacks the drama of her
prior misery.” Jennifer Egan’s New York Times review praised
Gilbert’s “sassy prose” but concluded, “Lacking a ballast of gravitas or
grit, the book lists into the realm of magical thinking.” While giving
Gilbert some props for writing about “her search for faith in a pop-culture
world,” Grace Lichtenstein of the Washington Post concurred.
It was the January 2007 paperback release that turned Eat, Pray, Love
into a blockbuster. As Jeffrey Trachtenberg noted the following September in
a page-one feature in the Wall Street Journal, “Virtually all of the
hottest paperback sales have flourished because they appeal to women,” and
perhaps because “they are about lives that are being transformed.”
After winning a coveted slot in Oprah’s book club, Gilbert appeared on the
Winfrey show in December and one after another white, 30-something women got
up and testified that reading the book had opened her eyes:
“I was a
self-proclaimed atheist. But I have since found religion, and I made my
bathroom my ashram.
“Several women said to me ‘This is the Bible. You must read it.’”
“It was just very special and it made me feel like, ‘You can do anything.’”
Fueling the Eat, Pray, Love fever was a proliferation of dinner
parties based on the food consumed in the book, travel agencies offerings
trips to Gilbert’s destinations, and news that Paramount had purchased the
movie rights and intended to cast Julia Roberts in the lead role.
Cue the backlash.
Writing in the online India Today May 22, 2007, Shampa Dhar-Kamath
sniffed that Gilbert claimed to get from Hinduism and yoga what real
devotees believe takes more than a lifetime. Meditate for four months in an
ashram in Mumbai and “voila, kundalini shakti is hers.”
In a December 23 New York Post commentary entitled “Eat, Pray,
Loathe,” Maureen Callahan wrote that what she found “most disturbing” was
Gilbert’s typically Western “fetishization of Eastern thought and culture.”
No fan of New Age spirituality, Callahan asked, “Why is it that women, in
overwhelming numbers, are now indulging in this silliness?” Her answer?
Gilbert’s shortcuts to nirvana gave them “a license to abandon all critical
“Is She, Pray Tell, Self-absorbed or True Seeker: Not All Readers Love
Elizabeth Gilbert” ran the headline on Carol Memmot’s February 7 story in
USA Today on online reactions to the book like “cloying” and
Given an opportunity to respond, Gilbert emailed: “While I understand
people’s objections to anything that smacks of the New Age movement…mine is
just a simple old human story—of one person trying, with great rigor and
discipline, to comprehend her personal relationship with divinity.”
For some, however, it was Gilbert’s selfishness that stood out. Renee A.
James, writing in the Allentown Morning Call March 9, examined her
own “resentment” of the book and concluded: “[O]bsessed with finding ‘better
and perfect,’” Gilbert was asking for too much.
To author Nyla Matuk, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail April 19,
Eat, Pray, Love was “[o]ne of the worst books I’ve read.” What
distressed her most was Gilbert’s portrayal of her search “as a set of
While female readers pondered whether they were entitled to take their own
spiritual journey out of boredom and despair, one movie company figured it
had the yang to Gilbert’s yin.
On August 5, the Hollywood Reporter reported that, to coincide with
the movie release of Eat, Pray, Love, Warner Bros. would be putting
out a comedy based on Andrew Gottlieb’s novel about a man who, after his
wife leaves him, goes on a bender in Ireland, embraces the slots in Vegas,
and finds “company” in Thailand.
The title? Drink, Play, F**k.