'Eat, Pray, Love' Author Journeys To Commitment
A 30-something woman, a New Yorker, has been through a terrible, nasty divorce, so she decides to take a year for herself to travel and try to heal.
The woman starts in Italy, where she gorges on pasta and gelato — that's the pleasure part of the trip. Then she heads to India for yoga and meditation. And, finally, she visits Indonesia, where she tries to find balance, but ends up meeting a handsome Brazilian man 17 years her senior and falling madly in love.
Sound familiar yet? It's the story Elizabeth Gilbert told in her mega-best-selling 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. The book spent more than a year in the No. 1 spot on The New York Times bestseller list and is soon to come out as a movie starring Julia Roberts.
Now Gilbert is back with a follow-up, Committed, which she calls "kind of an accidental book."
"I didn't have any intention of writing another memoir," Gilbert tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "But what happened is that — as readers of Eat, Pray, Love know — I did meet that lovely, handsome Brazilian man and we made a pretty fierce commitment to each other that we would stay together forever but never marry."
Both were survivors of bad divorces, Gilbert explains, and they were happily living out their unmarried lives. "The problem was he wasn't a U.S. citizen and every time he came to visit me there was the, you know, the famous border crossing and Homeland Security and the INS. And one of these border crossings turned sour one day."
At the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, her partner was pulled out of line, thrown into jail and booted out of the United States. "And I was informed by a man named Officer Tom at the Homeland Security Department in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport that the only way I could get him back was to marry him," Gilbert says. "So we like to say that it was an arranged marriage — arranged by the INS."
For nearly a year, Gilbert and her partner shared a form of exile as they worked to arrange his return to the United States. During that time, they traveled across Southeast Asia — Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia — and Gilbert interviewed housewives, poets, psychologists and others about marriage.
"I really had such an aversion to matrimony when I started this," Gilbert says. But what she came away with was a "historical respect" for marriage.
"[It's] not quite the rigid, boxy institution that I thought it was, but is in fact an ongoing, millennia-long experiment in social living that is being tinkered with and altered with every generation, you know, with every culture — every couple who comes into it puts their mark on it," she says. "And it has an almost Darwinian survival that I found really impressive."
Gilbert says she chucked the first draft of her book — which she worked on for close to two years — because "I realized the entire book was wrong."
"What I know now, and what I can see now, is that I was trying to appease 6 million Eat, Pray, Love readers when I wrote the first draft of the book. And I had them in the room with me and I was writing it by committee, sort of imaginarily consulting them as I was going," Gilbert says. "So the whole thing was very forced and inauthentic."
She says it wasn't until she narrowed her audience down to the two dozen or so women she spends her life talking to that it made sense. And, yes, they were all women, because, Gilbert says, we're still in the midst of a radical new social experiment.
"And the radical, unprecedented new social experiment is: What happens if we give women autonomy, education, finances, you know, control over their sexual biology?" she says. "What happens if we give you all this freedom? What are you going to do with it? ... And we're all still sort of puzzling it out in a very intense way."
When she was in college, Gilbert says, "my friends and I would sit up until 2 in the morning and sort of panic over how we were going to balance raising our children, being married and having careers, and I kind of don't think the guys down the hall in the dorm were doing that when they were 19," she says. "But we already saw it coming, and this book is sort of picking up the thread of a conversation that I think I've been having with my friends for 20 years."
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