Ten years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert published her little memoir about the year she spent picking her life together after divorce and depression by travelling to Italy, India and then Indonesia to find what she’d been missing.
Not without its detractors, Eat, Pray, Love became a worldwide smash hit phenomenon, spawning an industry of yoga vacations, the film starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert, and inspiring readers to take on their own ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ adventures.
In the intervening years, Gilbert has published another memoir, Committed, novel The Signature Of All Things, and Big Magic, about creativity (‘Creative living beyond fear’). She has become something of an evangelist for the messages of accepting vulnerability and embracing fear that are currently prominent on the be-your-best-self circuit. I know, for I am her friend on Facebook, and have often been prompted to reflect on maxims such as ‘Bad things happen to women who wait for good things to happen’ and ‘Not this’ (gloomy sea, gloomy sky).
Now, to celebrate the decade, Bloomsbury have brought out a collection of nearly fifty reader stories inspired by the book.
As Gilbert writes in the introduction of Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It, ‘It was never really about eating pizza in Italy or meditating in India or falling in love in Bali… No, Eat, Pray, Love was about what happens when one human being realises that her life doesn’t have to look like that anymore—that everything (including herself) can be changed. After that realisation occurs, nothing will ever be the same again’.
And then everyone rides off into the sunset. But no, that doesn’t quite happen either. Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It is comprised of the stories of people, female and male, grappling with their lives at a deep and often painful level, and then, taking cue from Gilbert’s resurrection from the bathroom floor, remaking their own existences, moving their lives in new directions of their choosing. Each life may continue to be messy and complicated but they are lives of agency.
The stories inspired by reading Eat, Pray, Love are often moving. One woman, at a cross-roads after unsuccessful treatment for infertility, hikes up a punishing fumerole to make her body accomplish something; another opens her heart to the heartbreak of her husband dying and finds the confidence to write a historical novel; one man having left the seminary to embrace his sexuality and a career, spends a year coming home to light candles and pray to renew his connection with God. For some, dark times arrive with ill-health. Many take up creative pursuits like singing and writing. And yes, like Gilbert, some leave unhappy marriages, whilst others make the decision not to have children.
It’s hard not to argue that Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It is preaching to the converted, but it is a testament to the power of the book to touch people.
Whilst the original Eat, Pray, Love brims with Gilbert’s warmth and self-deprecating humour, the ‘hot mess’ she has since described herself as is palpable. These were the darkest of times. She had the big house and the husband who wanted to start a family, and after participating actively in all of its creation, found she did not want a bar of it. That she looks this in the eye, sees it through and forges something new, is courageous. Of course, as Gilbert points out, at the time it was a huge risk and she had no idea what the outcome would be.
What stands out in Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It is the deep resonance Eat, Pray, Love has had on readers. It is both love letter and thank you note from readers Gilbert has inspired through her story. Other readers tell their own story in reference to the tale that has inspired them: the new love is ‘my Brazilian’ (a divorced Irish/German American!) and various ‘Eat, Pray, Love moments’, bathroom floor equivalences etc. The book is taken up as an icon, a validation of the experience of deciding ‘not this’, and seeing it through.
And what is it that has resonated so deeply? The pith of the Eat, Pray, Love message is that the story can be rewritten, the bird can resurrect.
Gilbert offers a clue in a speech she made at an Oprah event, ‘Live to Your Potential: Life Changing Lessons For All’, which I found myself watching over breakfast one day. Gilbert thinks we are in the middle of a ‘vast and completely unprecedented’ science experiment as ‘the first generation of women in history of who have had freedom, autonomy, education, literacy, access to their own power’. ‘We’re the first ones, ya know’, she intones. The quandary is what to do with all this freedom. We don’t have the history of generations of women living lives like us to replicate. Gilbert looks at the lives of all her friends, ‘all of us are baffled by what we are supposed to be doing with our lives… We need to see how each other are solving our questions.’
So whilst talk of resurrection and reinvention align with the rags-to-riches ideal of the American Dream, a specific and hardly universal paradigm, and even though the reality is that a goodly number of people around the world are and will continue to live their lives confined by the tethers of wealth, health and status that they currently enjoy or suffer, the message itself is empowering and decidedly feminist.
One of the stories in Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It begins ‘For my entire adult life, I did what was expected of me. I built a successful career. I married and had children’, and ends with the woman sitting down to write, ‘It felt joyous. It felt like coming home.’ As Joan Didion wrote, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. For the readers in Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It and others, Eat, Pray, Love is a magnetic story that has given them the confidence and courage to tell themselves a new story in order to live.