Reeling from the fallout of a devastating divorce and a subsequent broken relationship, writer Elizabeth Gilbert turns towards travel to re-enervate her body, mind, and soul. Four months in Italy exploring the pleasures of food, followed by four months of prayer in India, to find a “lasting experience of God,” and finally, four months in Indonesia, learning to balance “the urge for pleasure against the longing for devotion,” add up to a year-long voyage of self-discovery for the thirty-four-year-old New Yorker. There’s an engaging story behind each of her combinations, which sets the tone for Eat, Pray, Love. We may not agree with what the author does or even the way she thinks, but we can’t help but be swept along by her exuberant narrative.
During the painful aftermath of her divorce, Gilbert decides to learn Italian, which she has always found “more beautiful than roses.” The language, it turns out, is the only source of pleasure in the time of her unhappiness. Thus, when Gilbert decides to heal her body by immersing herself in simple joys, she looks towards Rome, Italy, to “live for a while in a culture where pleasure and beauty are revered.”
Her adoration of Italy is contagious-only a curmudgeon would fail to be moved by the simple delight she finds in a velvety peach, or in a sunlit afternoon idled away people-watching. Her enjoyment of such “harmless pleasures” is ardent; a full page is devoted to the description of a pizza she falls in love with, and there’s a paean to the Italian language that manages to be simultaneously passionate and scholarly. In between eating gelato for breakfast and speaking Italian with a gentleman named Luca Spaghetti, Gilbert practices the art of bel far niente, the pleasure of doing nothing.
The Roman holiday, somewhat unsurprisingly, leads to happiness, which, in Gilbert’s case, is a special triumph: she has been on medication for depression since her divorce. For peace, however, Gilbert must travel further, to the Indian ashram of a famous spiritual teacher.
Her choice of India is again dictated by a post-divorce experience: she attends a talk by her (then) boyfriend’s spiritual teacher in New York, and upon hearing this “radiantly beautiful Indian woman” speak, Gilbert gets “chill bumps over [her] whole body, even across the skin of [her] face.” Believing she’s at last found her guide to spirituality, she resolves to visit the teacher’s ashram near Mumbai.
Four months spent in meditation and yoga should enable Gilbert to achieve a higher state of consciousness that ultimately results in a state of divine bliss; i.e., an experience of God. With its quiet environment and lack of distractions, the ashram is the ideal spot to devote oneself to such an attempt. But meditation requires a calm mind, and Gilbert’s mind, instead of resting in stillness, is, as she ruefully confesses, either “(1) bored, (2) angry (3) depressed (4) anxious or (5) all of the above.”
This section of the memoir describes meditation techniques in some detail. Not a problem in itself, but Liz Gilbert is the life and soul of this party, the host who makes us drop our inhibitions and enjoy ourselves, and when she’s not around, the party sags. Thus, when she devotes three pages to explaining the concept of kundalini shakti (divine energy) in different religions, or tells us in detail about “man’s inherently flawed state,” it falls flat, since she’s not animating the pages with her active participation.
Perhaps aware of the esotericism of some of her material, Gilbert’s prose is determinedly reader-friendly-sometimes to the point of cuteness. Describing the moment of her union with God, she writes “… I entered the void…. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way-not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle.” Such false notes, however, are rare; Gilbert’s path to enlightenment is mostly paved with pitch-perfect prose.
Having pampered her body and calmed her mind, Gilbert must now find a balance between pleasure and devotion. She therefore flies to Bali to spend four months with a medicine man she’d met some years ago, who had remarked then on the lack of equilibrium in her life. Although the stakes are low in this leg of her trip (Gilbert has found God and happiness-enough for most humans), the reader is still eager to come along for the ride-testament as much to Gilbert’s likeable persona as to her compulsively readable writing.
The Balinese, she explains, are the “global masters of balance, the people for whom the maintenance of perfect equilibrium is an art, a science and a religion.” Such equilibrium is achieved by a deep understanding of the external universe, so as to locate one’s position in the cosmos. The latter is calibrated in terms of a person’s relationships-with God, with spouse, family, and friends, and with the environment.
Gilbert sets about exploring her external universe-the town of Ubud-with gusto. In the process, she is revealed as the ideal traveler. Curious yet respectful about cultural practices new to her, the open-minded Gilbert makes friends wherever she goes. Without glossing over the island’s troubles (including its violent past, and the recent terrorist attacks), she succeeds in portraying Bali as a destination that nourishes both body and soul. After reading her descriptions of the local landscape and society, few will not long to book a one-way ticket to Denpasar.
Suffice it to say that in Bali, Gilbert finds everything she’s looking for-and then some. Love, happiness, peace, and harmony are all hers-and who would begrudge her such fulfillment? This writer’s generosity of spirit is equaled only by her actions; we cannot help but wish her well. Eat, Pray, Love charms, even as it beckons us to adventure.
(This review appeared in The Barcelona Review in 2006.)