Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage /Author: Elizabeth Gilbert /Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Committed picks up where the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love left off. Elizabeth Gilbert is still travelling but not solo — on a quest but not for the same reasons. The last time she went into exile to Italy, India and Indonesia, it was self-imposed and involved food and spiritual enlightenment. The latest one to Southeast Asia, however, has been brought on by circumstances beyond her control and is about facing her deepest fear head on.

The title of this memoir may be Committed but Elizabeth has not gotten over her dread of matrimony. She has been committed to the institution of marriage before and has no interest in going back. Thus far she has successfully evaded capture and is determined to do anything — anything at all to avoid “going through that apocalypse”. Details of that particular ‘apocalypse’ can be found in the pages of her previous book — Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia, recently turned into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts.

While she is content to be in a long distance relationship with a foreigner, her government, sadly, is not. And so Elizabeth Gilbert is “sentenced to marry”. By the US Department of Homeland Security no less and unless she complies, the US will close its doors to her man. Permanently. Suddenly, she is forced to come to terms with her scary marital history and make peace with the idea of marriage.

It gets worse. Soon, any American interested in marrying an outsider will have to undergo an FBI investigation. Thus begins an agonizingly long wait and an obligatory return to a nomadic life. Elizabeth uses this unexpected break to her advantage, raking through her private history and public records to determine “what this befuddling, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is”.

As their travels take Elizabeth and her fiancé off the beaten path, she will make a solitary journey armed with the works of eminent matrimonial scholars to better understand her “inherited assumptions, the shape of her family’s narrative and her culturally specific catalogue of anxieties”. She argues that she must be vigorously persuaded because matrimony has not always been kind to women. This involves extensive time travelling to explore the primitive notions about marriage and divorce. Turns out that marriage was not always considered sacred even within Christian tradition, (they resisted for at least 10 centuries) and this discovery alone allows her to stop stringing together the terms sin and failure with divorce and finally let herself off the hook.

Elizabeth, who has been watching the women in her family “adapt, adjust, glide and accept”, is painfully aware that her advantageous childhood has been built on the ashes of her mother’s sacrifices. She comes across some alarming statistics claiming that a long, happy, healthy, prosperous existence awaits married men who are the sole beneficiaries of this union.

She will also embark on parallel journeys to decipher the modern interpretation of marriage while closely examining its evolutionary nature, which she believes actually ensures its survival. This is nice because it really needed to change. In Europe, a nasty practice known as ‘coverture’ forced women to renounce their legal rights and property, “doubling a man’s power as his wife’s evaporated”. She further observes that combined with the strict anti-divorce policies of the church, marriage became an institution that entombed and erased its female victims — especially among the gentry. Trace amounts of this troubling ruling could be detected as late as 1975 and prevented married women (like Elizabeth’s mother) from opening checking accounts or taking out loans without their husband’s written permission.

While she wanders through the pages of history, learning new facts (apparently, even a seagull that supposedly mates for life has a 25 % divorce rate) and putting the marriages of her friends and family on the stand, Elizabeth must also introduce marital customs of distant lands. This is a part travelogue, after all. In the hills of northern Vietnam, for instance, reside the Hmong, convinced that it does not matter whom one marries “and with rare exceptions, one man is pretty much the same as another”. Their depressing worldview has held them in good stead thus far.

The writer, on the other hand, duels with her deep-seated insecurities and reveals the sort of marriage she is likely to have — “wifeless, motherless and husbandless” — which simply means that neither would be obligated to fulfil the traditional role of housekeeper or breadwinner. It also means that she will proudly defend the decision to join an “Auntie Brigade” instead of enlisting in the “Mommy Corps”. Members of the exclusive brigade will be pleased to learn that they are in great company — Tolstoy, Capote, Lennon and the Bronte sisters, all raised by doting aunts.

Elizabeth freely admits that the point of the whole exercise is just to talk herself into tying the knot. And this leads to an elaborately crafted, highly illuminating, (delightful) discourse between a sceptic and western marriage.

Published in Daily Times 28 Aug 2010

Viking Adult; Pp 285; Rs 1,150

Available at Liberty Books

Afrah Jamal is a Columnist for Daily Times.

Email: afrahjh@hotmail.com
Blog: http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com/

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EAT PRAY LOVE: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia /Author: Elizabeth Gilbert /Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

A magazine assignment took a 30 something woman from NY to Bali where a ninth generation medicine man prophesied her return. She keeps her appointment because he said she would but also makes fresh plans; putting her old life on hold, signing up for an extreme religious experience in India and enrolling in language courses in Italy – because she realized she should.

‘Exhausted by the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of hasty choices and chaotic passions’, Elizabeth Gilbert will leave the ruins of her former life (nasty break-up & all) and head out into the wilderness for some very unusual R&R. Her spirits demand an instant pick me up and a dramatic makeover.

This voyage of self discovery requires that she take a year off, trading in the comforts of home for the comforts of Europe and the discomfort of the third world. Somewhere in another book she has described her foray into the unknown as ‘an experiment with solitude and self accountability’. Most people seeking spiritual rehabilitation probably would not have plotted such an elaborate course to enlightenment. Most people might also have had some trouble lining up eager publishers willing to purchase their book about these experiences beforehand. Moreover, they would think twice before taking their private demons out for a public walk.

Elizabeth is different. Not only does she provide an unflinching portrayal of her post break-up self but she also allows readers to accompany her on a retrieval mission starting from the dreary base camp littered with the debris of wrecked relationships all the way to the summit. And she still manages to make most of it sound funny, which is remarkable.

Here is someone struggling to find her way back, first through food, then with meditation and finally with love and more meditation. She engages in conversations with the Almighty, herself, her mind, invisible dead Guru’s, visible Balinese healers etc. She falls head over heels with a pizzeria in Naples and makes friends with people who have names like Luca Spaghetti (no offence intended). She talks to herself in a notebook, and the notebook talks back.

Indonesia is about learning to ‘hold steady in this chaotic world’ from the good Balinese – global masters of balance. Italy is simpler. The closest Elizabeth gets to art is in the ‘National Museum of Pasta’ which is fine since she just intends to savour their ‘beautiful food’ and rich language. India is, of course reserved for that all important transcendent experience (that will ‘transport her from portals of the universe’ taking her to the centre of God’s palm). At every terminal she checks in demons along with her baggage. After each stop, she summons a new-found spiritual discipline to vanquish these unwelcome travel companions.

A wonderful assortment of friends, family and well wishers are stationed throughout bringing basket loads of humour, advice and insight. There will either be a Richard, Elizabeth’s Texas Yogi – helping her become more anchored or Iva, her Lebanese friend back home, who comes with ‘an Iva-only Bat-Phone to the universe & an open-round-the-clock special channel to the divine’ making her understand the mysteries of the world.

An article called ‘The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon’, chronicling Ms. Gilbert’s experiences as a bartender became the basis for ‘Coyote Ugly’ – the movie. And now the quest for divine communion and Italian food that drove her halfway across the world is the basis for another.

ISBN: 9781408810101

No of Pages: 382

Price: Rs. 695

Available at Liberty Books

Afrah Jamal is a Columnist for Daily Times.

Email: afrahjh@hotmail.com

Blog: http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com/


Movie Review – ‘Eat Pray Love’ by A. O. Scott

The double standard in Hollywood may be stronger than ever. Men are free to pursue all kinds of adventures, while women are expected to pursue men. In a typical big-studio romantic comedy the heroine’s professional ambition may not always be an insurmountable obstacle to matrimony, but her true fulfillment — not just her presumed happiness but also the completion of her identity — will come only at the altar.

This paradigm is, of course, much older than the movies, but it can be refreshing, now and then, to see something different in the multiplex: a movie that takes seriously (or for that matter has fun with) a woman’s autonomy, her creativity, her desire for something other than a mate.

The scarcity of such stories helps explain the appeal of movies like the two “Sex and the City” features, “Julie & Julia,” “The Blind Side” and now “Eat Pray Love,” a sumptuous and leisurely adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of post-divorce globe-trotting. Directed by Ryan Murphy, who wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Salt, the film offers an easygoing and generous blend of wish fulfillment, vicarious luxury, wry humor and spiritual uplift, with a star, Julia Roberts, who elicits both envy and empathy.

Playing a woman whose natural self-confidence is dented by disappointment and threatened by remorse, Ms. Roberts dims her glamour without snuffing it out altogether, as she tried to do in Mike Nichols’s unfortunate “Closer.” Her Liz Gilbert can be radiant and witty, and rarely doubts her essential attractiveness, but she also suffers uncertainty, ambivalence and real anguish. The end of her marriage — to a kind, weak-willed oddball played by Billy Crudup — is wrenching before it has a chance to be fully liberating. And her rebound relationship, with a soulful younger actor (James Franco), only exacerbates Liz’s sense that she is drifting away from herself.

This may strike you as an abstract problem, and one that depends, for both its articulation and its proposed solution, on a high degree of material security and social entitlement. So many people in this world confront much graver threats to their well-being: violence, poverty, oppression. This woman has nothing but good luck! True enough, but the kind of class consciousness that would blame Liz for feeling bad about her life and then taking a year abroad to cure what ails her strikes me as a bit disingenuous — a way of trivializing her trouble on the grounds of gender without having to come out and say so.

What “Eat Pray Love” has — what the superficial “Sex and the City 2” notably lacked — is a sense of authenticity. Whether you decide to like Liz, and whether you approve of her choices and the expectations she has set for herself, it is hard not to be impressed by her honesty. The same can be said for Ms. Gilbert (to distinguish between the author and narrator of the book and the character she becomes when impersonated by Ms. Roberts). And the screenwriters, copiously sprinkling the author’s supple, genial prose into dialogue and voice-over, maintain a clear sense of her major theme. As the movie meanders through beautiful locations, grazing on scenery, flowers and food, it keeps circling back to the essential tension between Liz’s longing for independence and her desire to be loved.

Reflecting on her earlier life, she observes that for most of it she was either with a man or in the process of leaving one, and so in the first stages of her journey she experiments with singleness. Not with solitude, exactly, since Liz is naturally gregarious and acquires friends easily. Back home in New York she has Delia (Viola Davis), and in Rome a Swedish woman named Sofi (Tuva Novotny) introduces her to an amicable group of Italians, including a fellow whose last name is Spaghetti (Giuseppe Gandini). While he is seen mainly in group shots, his namesake food is filmed in loving close-ups.

In keeping with the theme of self-examination, Liz’s trip is confined to countries that begin with the letter “I.” From the trattorias and ruins of Italy, to an ashram in India, and then to Indonesia. At the ashram she meets a cantankerous Texan named Richard (Richard Jenkins) whose nickname for her is Groceries and whom she accuses of “speaking in bumper stickers.” This is a stone tossed from inside a glass house, given the aphoristic, wisdom-mongering tone of much of “Eat Pray Love,” but it is also a welcome wink of self-awareness, indicative of the good humor that redeems some of the film’s (and the book’s) muzzy therapeutic moments. The three themes enumerated in the title are explored with a cheerful tact unlikely to trouble any tastes or sensibilities. The food is not overly spicy or exotic — spaghetti in Rome, pizza in Naples; the religion not uncomfortably, you know, religious; and the sex discreet almost to the point of invisibility. In Bali Liz apprentices herself to an elderly shaman (the irrepressible scene stealer Hadi Subiyanto) and befriends a healer named Wayan (Christine Hakim). She also falls for Felipe, a divorced Brazilian expatriate, played with insouciant, unshaven charm by Javier Bardem.

Will her feelings for Felipe cause her to abandon the self-sufficiency that had been the point of her quest? And because “Eat Pray Love” builds its climax around this question, does that mean, in the end, that it reverts to the man-centric romantic-comedy formula? Yes and no. Mr. Murphy, whose television work (“Nip/Tuck” and “Glee,” most notably) can be sharp-edged even to the point of meanness, is much softer here, and “Eat Pray Love” can serve as a reminder that television is, at the moment, a braver and more radical medium than the movies.

“Eat Pray Love” is unlikely to change anybody’s life or even to provoke emotions anywhere near as intense as those experienced, early and late, by its intrepid heroine. Its span may be global, but its scope is modest, and it accepts a certain superficiality as the price of useful insight. Watch. Smile. Go home and dream of Brazilians in Bali.

This review was published in The New York Times.

The book is available here.