Bad Reputation Book Club: Eat, Pray, Love
Bad Reputation Book Club is a monthly book review series where Autumn James Haworth looks at books that have been critically panned and discusses whether or not these reputations are deserved. This month, he’s taking a look at the memoir Eat, Pray, Love.
Autumn James Haworth is a bi and trans author from the north of England. He likes to write short stories and poetry all about mental health, growing up and falling in love.
Welcome back to Bad Reputation Book Club. We’re taking a slightly different direction this month. This is a book that I was surprised to see on many ‘Top 10 Worst Books of All Time’ lists. Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight usually battle for top spot, but this was pretty high up. I thought this was a well-loved book, but apparently not. We’re diving into Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, trying to find out if it deserves its bad reputation.
- Domestic abuse/violence
I want to be careful how I talk about this book as it’s autobiographical. I don’t want to come across as being critical of Elizabeth Gilbert herself. I’m only critiquing the book.
The book opens with an introduction, saying that there will be thirty-six stories in each of the three locations visited. This is tied to a beaded bracelet often found in Ashrams. At this point, I was worried that this was about to be the kind of thing you hear from that one person that found themselves on a gap year, but this isn’t anywhere near as irritating.
The first place on Gilbert’s travels is Italy (for the most part, Rome). It opens up with her trying to figure out if she really wants to break her vow of celibacy with someone she’s been doing a language exchange with. We learn the reason she’s a) celibate and b) travelling, which is that she’s been through a messy divorce and rebound relationship break-up. One night in particular plays on her mind; the night she realised she doesn’t want to be married anymore. There was a part of me that was like ‘first world problems, much?’, but given the kind of fiction I read, I can’t really be mad at it. She writes her feelings well, and keeps you intrigued (even if it is distinctly middle class).
This night culminates in her trying to talk to God, something she hasn’t done in some time. I really enjoyed the description of this talk. She talks to him like a drunk girl at a party trying to convince her friend she’s okay before spilling every negative thought she’s had.
As they separate, things become far more than sour between the two of them, and Gilbert (perhaps a little too quickly) moves onto a man called David, moving in with him remarkably quickly. The two of them have an on-again-off-again type affair lasting a few years that often leaves Gilbert not knowing where she stands.
This is a metaphor heavy book. It’s a personal thing that this isn’t enjoyable for me, but I can see why someone else might like it. For me, it doesn’t feel like a particularly mature writing choice, but it is one that can make the book feel a little easier to read.
It’s during her relationship with David that the groundwork is laid for the three places she goes to during her travels. She begins to learn Italian, she’s introduced to her guru and she (as a travel writer) goes on a trip to Indonesia, where she meets a medicine man who tells her that she’ll return to him.
During one of her off periods with David, she decides she wants to get away from it all for the year, travelling to what she calls the ‘three I’s: Italy, India, and Indonesia’. There’s some light ribbing from her friends about it, which really tickled me. It was silly really, but there was something about Gilbert being firmly grounded by her friends that got me.
There are lines throughout this that, no matter how middle class they are, remain brilliant. There’s something a little bit Sex and the City about: ‘Here, I pause to offer a prayer to my gentle reader: May you never, ever have to get a divorce in New York.’
Tensions are rising for her as she needs her husband to sign the divorce papers so she can travel. She knows that a court case would ruin her chances of going anywhere, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. At what feels like the last possible chance, he signs the papers, and she’s free to go.
She’s, thankfully, self-aware enough to know that she’s privileged. She doesn’t pretend her problems are the worst you’ll see, but they’re hard for her, and that is what’s important in her memoir.
A few weeks post-divorce, she lands in Rome and is immediately entranced by her surroundings. Unsurprisingly, the food is one of her first priorities after securing a place to live (after all, this is the ‘Eat’ location of the title).
Gilbert aims to write a ‘it feels like everything here feels tailor-made for me- in a kind of fairytale way, but instead comes across a little bit silly. Colour me entirely unsurprised that the Italian language is seen and heard everywhere in Italy.
Gilbert then talks about how she loves travelling despite not being the best at it. It might have caused her strife, but she sticks by it. I’m not totally sure how self-aware she is when she talks about always sticking by something that’s often done her dirty, but I’d like to think that she knows what she’s doing.
She joins a school so she can learn Italian better. She’s hung up about not being in what she sees as the better group, but ultimately this doesn’t mean all that much in the end. This is a memoir though; I’m not about to bring up Chekov’s gun about someone’s real life.
After a week and a half, her former demons manage to catch up to her. While the use of metaphors gets grating because of the frequency, the one she uses about her depression and loneliness is wonderfully visceral. I wish Gilbert would save using metaphors for moments like this rather than having this be one in a sea of many.
In order to confront her feelings, she writes herself little messages, responding to them as though she were talking to a friend. It’s not the first time she does this, but here it seems to be the first major step in pulling herself out of the hole she’s in. She talks about some of her coping mechanisms throughout, and I’m glad that it’s clear that this is very personal, and just what works for her.
While trying to pick herself up, she discusses her friends, knowing that they’re one of the reasons she’s keeping herself steady. She talks of a friend who showed her great food, and the friends she’s made thanks to her language classes.
She goes to watch a football match with her friend Luca and a group of Lazio supporters. She finds throughout the night that she’s more easily settling into understanding Italian while the group around her are yelling at the game.
The next day, she’s with her friend and learns the word ‘attraversiamo’ (meaning ‘let’s cross over’). It’s a phrase that she really enjoys, for the sound if nothing else, and it comes up occasionally throughout the rest of the book.
Later in the week, she goes to Naples so she can enjoy the birthplace of pizza and gelato. She realises it’s a little different to what she was expecting. To me, it felt a little like a middle class woman realising that poor people exist. Generally, Gilbert is more self-aware, but there’s a distinct lack of it here.
When she returns to Rome, she realises that she needs to do something about her on-again-off-again relationship with David. She compares that relationship to her parents’ and recalls the moment she realised it wasn’t as she thought. She’d had a conversation with her mother, and I really enjoyed reading this bit because I’m always fascinated by adults learning that their parents aren’t what they built them up to be. It’s a right of passage that children learn that their parents aren’t deities, but adults still hold their parents to a much higher regard than they do others too.
She emails David, making it clear that they’re through. She thinks she’s dealing with it, but when she sees her friend, she crumbles. Then we get the line ‘my hands are slapped over my eyes again, tears spraying through my clamped fingers.’ I know it’s a metaphor (or at least I hope it’s supposed to be) but the idea of tears literally spraying just felt so silly.
Her sister, Catherine, visits to further help her get over David. She spends a lot of time comparing herself to Catherine in both positive and negative ways.
The final part of her time in Rome is spent travelling to various towns and cities before spending time with a whole group of her friends for a birthday party.
She very quickly settles herself into the Ashram in India, taking part in the first meditation of the day asserting herself in like she was there the whole time.
She then discusses why one might take part in yoga, and getting a little into why she does.
She meets one of her roommates, who is one of the many people she meets. There’s only Richard that’s memorable.
She discovers that her Guru isn’t there in person which disappoints her at first, but she realises that it isn’t necessary for her to be there. She knows that there’s a presence of her guru and decides to settle into her work and meditation.
She sees in the New Year at the Ashram, and that’s what kicks off her meditative journey.
There’s one part where Gilbert says ‘I am aware of the metaphor’ followed up with a bit of an ‘etc…etc…’ but that metaphor was one that she would’ve freely used elsewhere. It’s a bit of a lapse in self-awareness.
She realises that she has an easy time with prayer and yoga, but struggles with meditation. She can’t seem to wash away her thoughts. Her mind is always switched on too much. I generally have no problems with the way Gilbert talks about faith/spirituality etc. but the section on ‘present’ and ‘presence’ was one of the most pretentious things in the whole book.
After a long day battling her mind, Gilbert is sitting alone at dinner. This is where we’re introduced to Richard, an abrasive Texan who often serves to ground her and keep her heading in the right direction.
As a meditative aide, she turns to a simple mantra, and manages to settle into it. In fact, gets an incredible feeling of elevation and enlightenment. It feels like one of the moments she’s been working towards, and I really enjoyed the way she described that moment because you could almost feel it with her.
After a few days however, she’s struggling to meditate again. She talks to Richard and realises she’s not really over David. She has to confront that, and the fact that she kind of has control issues.
As awful as this might sound, I appreciate that you actually see a struggle when she’s looking for betterment. I thought this was going to be that one person who won’t stop banging on about how they found themselves on a gap year, but there’s a bit of nuance here.
Each morning, Gilbert has been struggling her way through the Gurugita, a long hymn sung at the beginning of the day. One morning, she gets accidentally locked into her room; rather than deciding that this is a sign to skip the prayer, she jumps 15 feet out of her window to get to the prayer hall. This doesn’t make the hymn easier for her, but she realises that she needs it. It’s only once she manages to connect it to her nephew where she begins to enjoy it.
Sometimes I forget that ‘spastic’ doesn’t have the same connotations for Americans. Reading that felt like a slap in the face, but then I took that step back and remembered that it’s okay for her.
In a further attempt to calm her mind, one of her friends takes her to a tall tower where he leaves her with a little sort of to-do list. It’s a sweet scene, and perhaps one of my favourites in this section.
By the end of her trip, she knows she hasn’t found the perfect connection to God, but she’s left feeling far better than when she arrived.
I preferred the first part to the second. While all of the book is deeply personal, there was something a lot more inviting about part one. The section in Italy saw that personal growth just as in India, but I felt much closer to things in Rome.
When she arrives in Bali, everything isn’t quite what she’d thought. For a start, she can’t stay for longer than a month with her visa (she bribes someone later on to stay longer which is just glossed over. Ma’am that’s a crime). She was meant to be there for a few months because during her last visit, she met a medicine man who told her she’d one day return and spend a few months with him. She also realises that she doesn’t know her way around, so just gets a taxi driver to take her to a hotel, where figures out what to do.
She talks to the hotel receptionist, asking if he knows where she can find the medicine man she’s seeking, and as it happens, he does. Were this fiction, I’d almost call it contrived, but I suppose real-life works in mysterious ways.
When she sees the medicine man again, he doesn’t seem to remember her, but soon recognises her. It’s a sweet little reflective moment where you see how far she’s come. He immediately gets her to help him, as he can understand English by listening, but not so much reading. So, he gets her to read some of his letters to him.
After a brief history of Bali (which was a bit of a dull info dump), we get another info dump about the history of the medicine man, as told by him. You have to learn to suspend disbelief during long passages of speech. It’s pulled from memory, which is famously unreliable, but you learn to accept that it’s probably close enough.
After a few days, Gilbert sees a house to rent, and decides to move in there instead of the hotel.
When I was first reading and taking notes, I made a comment during the first info dump that it seemed to gloss over the darker aspects of the place, especially with the caste system. However, Gilbert does go somewhat into this after talking about moving out of the hotel, and I appreciated that this isn’t some starry-eyed view of a place that is far from perfect.
She meets Yudhi, he works for the woman that owns the house Gilbert is renting. He tried making a life in America, but ended up in legal trouble, and has since been banned from re-entering the country.
Later, Ketut, the medicine man, teaches Gilbert about the Four Brothers Meditation, which he says he doesn’t teach to westerners, however, feels that she’s deserving of it. It aligns pretty closely with the techniques that she already uses, so it’s not surprising that he thinks it’s right for her.
The next day, she’s knocked off her bicycle and gets a badly cut up leg. She thinks that Ketut will help, but he tells her that she needs to see a doctor. She finds a healer in town, Wayan, who offers her treatment.
They quickly become friends over lunch, and Gilbert learns that Wayan is a single mother without much money and isn’t so far from being evicted. Gilbert takes it upon herself to send a mass email to do a fundraiser to get the money to find a new place for Wayan and her daughter, Tutti.
Wayan introduces Gilbert to a woman named Armenia, who invites her to a party. Here, she meets Ian, a Welshman who she thinks highly of, but nothing happens with him. She also meets Felipe, another Brazilian who she’s flirtatious with and this flirtation later grows.
There’s sarcasm throughout the book, and not all of it lands. Sarcasm in written form is tricky; it’s why use ‘(sarcasm)’ just in case. I think it’s better to be clear. A lot of the time there’s enough context behind it, but Gilbert could be a little more careful.
She meets with Felipe again, and they really hit it off. At first, she’s reluctant, but they basically opt for a nothing serious kind of deal to start off with. I’m also really glad there isn’t a description of the sex itself, just the effect it has on her.
Once she’s raised the money for Wayan, there are some issues with finding a place for her. At first, it’s complex Balinese property laws, and later it’s a kind of weird thing about Wayan wanting/needing more from her. I didn’t really understand what was going on with that, but I think that might just be me struggling to follow.
She realises she’s falling for Felipe, and I found myself really rooting for them. They seemed really sweet for each other. In the end (what with Felipe spending time between different places) they come up with all the necessary plans to be able to make everything work.
I definitely enjoyed the section in Bali more than India, but still not quite as much as Italy. I thought it was fun, and a great culmination of the work she’d put in previously.
I don’t really know why this has made its way onto so many bad book lists. It seems to me to be harmless enough (if a little bit pretentious and middle class). Frankly, I think it’s a bit of simple fun, and I can’t help but feel it’s gained a bad reputation because it’s ‘chick-lit’, but that’s a conversation for a man with much more of a word count.
You can follow Autumn on Twitter