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You Can't Buy Enlightenment: The Problem with Eat, Pray, Love

Jezebel’s Jessica Olien wrote earlier this month that Elizabeth Gilbert has ruined Bali.  (Perhaps an unfair assessment from a young female writer visiting there herself, but let’s examine the point nonetheless.)  While in Ubud, the artsy-touristy enclave Gilbert wrote about in the final section of her book, Olien snapped a photo of a t-shirt urging visitors to eat, pay and leave.  She says:

With its Pilates classes and plentiful shops selling overpriced flowing clothing, Ubud has catered to women seeking spiritual harmony since long before Gilbert, but the book was a tipping point for the temple-strewn town.  Gilbert’s haunts here have become destinations of their own, stop-offs on an Eat, Pray, Love pilgrimage.

Yes, Eat, Pray, Love is like Sex and the City for the divorced set, and I am a huge fan.  The book came out in 2006, but I didn’t read it until three years later, when I was going through my own divorce.  Initially, I had difficulty empathizing with a protagonist armed with the kind of job, money and connections that would allow her to recover from her divorce while jet-setting around the world, but Gilbert quickly won me over with her keen mind and extraordinary heart.

I met Gilbert briefly at a book signing early this year.  Too briefly – since she’s the kind of woman any self-respecting huppie wants to BFF.  Yes, I’m using BFF as a verb – because that’s what Gilbert makes you want to do.  I wanted to BFF her in the same way her Felipe needed to boff her.  She’s luminous in person, and my friend Beth told her so as we stood in line to get our copies of her most recent book signed.  Gilbert’s response?  “Nah, I’m just sweaty.”  It’s precisely that kind of self-effacing charm that makes you fall in love with her.

Which is why I’m so saddened that though I’ll never know first-hand if Gilbert (unintentionally) “ruined” Bali, I know the release of the film Eat, Pray, Love has ruined the book.  In case you haven’t noticed, Eat, Pray, Love product lines are everywhere, being sold on HSN and at Cost Plus World Market.  Saks is offering an Eat, Pray, Love clothing line and Lancome is pitching Eat, Pray, Love lip gloss.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the transformative power of good gloss; I just hate to see one woman’s intense spiritual awakening being reduced to such shallow proportions.  No doubt we should pamper ourselves and treat our bodies as temples, but I’m fairly certain God will not be revealed to you while bathing with Indian Jasmine shower gel.

The question then becomes, has Gilbert sanctioned all of this profiteering?  She’s quoted in Oprah magazine as saying, “There’s an energy to Eat, Pray, Love that is so incomprehensible to me. Its expansiveness, and its reach—I sort of look at the book like, “You want to be a movie? Go be a movie. I didn’t know you wanted to be all this other stuff, too.” It’s so much bigger than me, and I’m very happy to let it be that.”  I wonder if she knew that “other stuff” included throw pillows.

Jeannine Stein of the LA Times says, “Sony Pictures and retailers are banking on women feeling such a connection with Gilbert’s story that they’ll want a tangible piece of it…. That, in marketing parlance, is something called transference, when someone takes the good feelings toward something (Gilbert’s book or Julia Roberts’ character) and links it to something else (a pasta machine) that might edge them a little closer to happiness and fulfillment.”  Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you Love.

Despite my disappointment about the relentless marketing of EPL as a lifestyle brand, I have nonetheless been looking forward to seeing the film since I first heard about it in January.  Much of it is beautifully shot, though it could have been translated to the screen in a cleverer, less straightforward way.  (The most interesting bit of page-to-picture alchemy being the scene in which Liz stands on the roof of the ashram and lets her ex-husband go.)  Love her or leave her, casting Julia Roberts as Gilbert was a brilliant decision.  Not only does Roberts favor Gilbert, she’s capable of both exuding the inner-glow required of a yogi and maintaining the type of constant low-grade emotional fever inflicted upon someone who’s just lost everything.  I usually find Roberts’s propensity to well with tears a bit much, but it serves her perfectly in the role of an overwrought divorcee.  (I’m sure I’ve shed enough tears in the 15 months subsequent to my divorce to fill all the canals in Venice.)

The film’s plot stays largely true to the book, though I agree with Dezhda Gaubert of E! when she says, “There’s no clear inciting incident that launches Liz’s nervous breakdown (indeed, in the movie she doesn’t even have one), thus the stakes are low….  She has yuppie ennui, not a midlife crisis.”  In one of the most poignant parts of the book, Gilbert describes her breakdown in such eloquent detail, recalling a time when she was so flustered and out-of-sorts that she saw her reflection in an elevator and waved to herself.  She writes in her journal later something along the lines of, “Never forget the time you recognized yourself as a friend.”  That sense of turmoil is pretty much absent from the film, and so Roberts’s Liz comes off as more of a pathetic rich lady than a real woman with real problems.

Jezebel’s Hortense Smith wrote a funny criticism of the film as her alter ego, the matronly supermarket tabloid aficionado and Julia Robert [sic] superfan, Helen Peters.  In it, she says:

I can eat, pray, love in the comfort of my own house for practically nothing: it might not be Italy, but I can boil water and make pasta without getting on a plane, and prayer is free, thank God, and the love part, well, I might not have the cash to fly to Javier Gorgeous’ house, but I like to think that love can happen anywhere and that you don’t need to be on vacation… to accidentally find it.  She could have done all of these things without getting on a plane is all I’m saying, because really these are all changes that come from the inside.

Perhaps.  Could the real Elizabeth Gilbert have survived her divorce without leaving New York?  Maybe.  I mean, probably.  I think it’s safe to assume she would have gone on breathing, like the rest of us.  But would she have become who she is today?  Doubtful.  After all, the whole point of Gilbert’s global journey was to find herself – to define herself in a way that had nothing to do with her career or her past loves.  As someone who has not only divorced herself from a man but also the town in which we lived, I understand the powerful need to get away from people and places.  And because of my own good fortune, I was able to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland one year ago this month and have my very own Eat, Pray, Love moment.  I stood in The Meadows with a view of Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano I later climbed to the top of, and forgave myself for what had happened in my marriage.  I certainly ate my share of cheese-covered french fries and yes, I even tried haggis.  The only thing I didn’t find was Javier Bardem.

And that’s the real problem with both the movie and the book: the fairy-tale ending.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s healing quest ended with her learning everything there is to know about life and love while falling into the arms of a gorgeous, charming, wonderful Latin lover, all within the span of a year.  I’ve been divorced for 15 months, and the hottest date I’ve had since has been going to see Eat, Pray, Love with my mother.  But so be it.  I do yoga now, and my mother makes great Italian food, so I figure two out of three ain’t bad.

Photo: .Delight via Flickr

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