In this day and age, we Americans live in a society where stress-filled days, long hours, and a mere two-week vacation are the norm in most corporate work environments. We work hard, we play even harder, and often we get burned out in the process. Therefore, it is no surprise that the dream of dropping everything to take time off to travel and "find one's self" is one of the most explored fantasies in the entertainment business. Also, it's no surprise that we number crunchers, penny pinchers, and wheel-grinders flock like lemmings to read, watch and consume whatever products make us feel like we actually have the ability to "escape" or outrun our day-to-day woes, if we put our minds to it.
The idea of going somewhere else to fix what's inside is quite characteristic of the overworked, frenetic culture of the West and certainly intriguing behavior to analyze --- it is ironic that we feel we must travel halfway around the globe away from our problems in order to gain enough perspective to face and potentially solve them. But this putting distance between ourselves and our troubles has been the subject of art for centuries. Where would we be without the constant search for clarity amidst our self-perpetuating chaos and the incessant impulse to interpret and describe what we learn along the way?
From National Book Award finalist Elizabeth Gilbert (THE LAST AMERICAN MAN) comes a travelogue so utterly pleasant and inspiring to read that many fellow soul-searchers undoubtedly will be scouring the Internet for vacation deals or weekend getaways the moment after they finish reading it. In a nutshell, EAT, PRAY, LOVE is Gilbert's contribution to the "distance begets understanding" canon --- a deeply personal chronicle of the year she spent living in three different countries (Italy, India and Indonesia) in order to better understand herself and her ultimate place in the universe.
As the book's flap copy so assiduously suggests and what she thankfully doesn't pretend to ignore, Gilbert led a fairly privileged life before her decision to drop-and-run. By the time she turned 30, she had a successful writing career as a reporter and published author (including a PEN/Hemingway nomination and the Pushcart Prize for her short story collection, PILGRIMS), a husband, a house in the suburbs and an apartment in New York City, a crew of worldly and influential friends, sufficient income to support her lifestyle, and a collection of stories from her own travels that definitely would be the envy of any Tom, Dick or Harry. From the outside, it appeared as though Gilbert had the perfect life.
But, as one might expect, she wasn't happy, and in a moment that can only be described as a bonafide breaking point (locked in the bathroom with her forehead on the floor tiles, sobbing uncontrollably), she realized she wanted out. She needed to find out what was missing from her life and how to get it back. As we all know, these things don't happen overnight. The breakup of her marriage left her emotionally and physically exhausted. The subsequent ill-fated affair she dove into directly after her divorce left her weak and dependent on a man who wasn't capable of giving her what she needed. It was around this time that she started to put the plan in motion that would take her away from these trappings and immerse her in three four-month-long rounds of intense self-discovery that would permanently alter the course of her life and, in turn, restore the missing links to her spiritual well-being.
In three separate sections, Gilbert attempts to tackle three different aspects of her personality while living in the country that best personifies that quality. In Italy (EAT), she explores the Pursuit of Pleasure and spends four glorious months eating, drinking and carousing her way through one of the most romantic, leisure-obsessed, pleasure-seeking cultures in the world. It is here that she remembers how to enjoy the taste of food without feeling guilty; how to revel in the joy that comes with sharing a bottle of wine in the moonlight while conversing in a foreign tongue; and how to float through her days with only the purpose of enjoying the fullness of her life from moment-to-moment.
In India (PRAY), she studies the Pursuit of Devotion and spends four strenuous months living on the ashram of a guru she met in the States. Here, she is taught that humility, patience and perseverance are essential in obtaining the spiritual guidance she so desires and that enlightenment can only be achieved through sincere dedication and focused discipline. In this quiet, almost austere environment, we witness Gilbert at her most humble --- fighting her insecurities and the demons from her past with a fierce intensity that only the most committed possess.
Her last four months in Indonesia (LOVE) are devoted to the Pursuit of Balance. It is in Bali that she finally brings her year-long sojourn to a close and, while doing so, achieves the balance she so lacked in the beginning. While living alone in a house in the hills, she furthers her spiritual study by apprenticing a ninth-generation medicine man, breaks her year-long vow of celibacy, and unexpectedly falls in love with a 52-year-old Brazilian man. In her words, "I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue."
There are far too many invaluable insights in this gem of a book to mention and far too little space to describe the impact that EAT, PRAY, LOVE most certainly will have on the lives of its readers. Suffice to say that Elizabeth Gilbert has a gift for storytelling and a knack for making us feel like we are welcome passengers on her journey. She is wise beyond her years, genuine in her approach, and steadfast in her attention to what really matters in life. Gratifying, thought-provoking --- a book you can take with you throughout your own march towards fulfillment.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on February 16, 2006