Given our culture’s fascination with getting to the happily ever after, why is it always so unsatisfying to hear from someone already there? Is it that details prized from the circumspect spouses are almost belligerent in their banality? (See Michelle Obama on Barack’s morning breath.) That the narratives themselves are so ludicrously one-gendered? (When’s the last time you saw a husband wrestle in print about a marital bed he still enjoys?) Or that a genuinely frank admission peskily seems always to herald a union’s complete demise? (Commence countdown on the wife half of the recent Times piece who admitted in the first paragraph to hating French kissing.)
Perhaps it’s the problem of writing about marriage at all—since there’s no greater act of hostility to a character than to saddle her with anything so tedious as a devoted spouse. Before Bridget Jones, works from Madame Bovary to Main Street to Heartburn to Terms of Endearment did their readers the favor of treating marriage as a many-gated prison, ringing with the plaints of aggrieved detainees, rather than a pleasant destination which, once reached, requires no further act of carnage than ripping the seal off the seat.
No matter how many gelatos we eat or ashrams we enjoy, we are always steering our liberated little ship away from one altar and toward another.
Allegedly, Committed, by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, is one such work. But in fact it is the final death knell to the single girl—our Mary Tyler Moore, our Annie Hall, our Kelly Taylor (“I choose me!”). A decade of chick lit, self-help, confession, and how-to have crushed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and One Day at a Time to smithereens, and we are condemned to drift in Gilbert’s oeuvre, where, no matter how many gelatos we eat or ashrams we enjoy, we are always steering our liberated little ship away from one altar and toward another.
When Eat, Pray, Love leaves off, Gilbert has just unearthed her soulful soulmate, Felipe. Followers of such extended-edition romances as Sex and the City know it is customary for a sequel at such time to contrive to nix the gentlemen in question from the plot, lest a narrative propelled by uncertainty and turmoil suddenly grind to a halt, alienating fans. Excising your soulmate from a memoir about your relationship is difficult to pull off, but Gilbert is delivered a plot twist courtesy of the U.S. government, which revokes Filipe’s visa in the name of Homeland Security.
Now, in his absence, a new, unencumbered journey can begin! Because, though dueling statuses had already reduced their time together to 90-day stints in a rented house in Philly, and though the couple cannot tolerate an itinerant life abroad, Gilbert is nonetheless unable to wrap her head around Xeroxing a dossier to put her country’s stamp of approval on the man to whom she’s already pledged, in a private ceremony, her eternal soul.
Why Gilbert is so desperately undone by the notion of the green-card marriage is ostensibly the author’s question to herself, but it increasingly becomes one for the reader. Even a Homeland Security officer, as he takes Felipe away, feels compelled to explain the obvious. “No, seriously—what’s the problem?” asked Officer Tom. “You two have obviously been cohabiting already. You obviously care about each other, you’re not married to anyone else… you could always sign a prenuptial agreement… I mean, if you’re worried about going through all the financial mess of a divorce again. Or if it’s the relationship issues that scare you, maybe some counseling would be a good idea.”
It would—although a work in which one “unravel[s] the history of monogamous Western marriage in order to better understand my inherited assumptions, the shape of my family’s narrative, and my culturally specific catalog of anxieties” seems more in order for readers accustomed to seeing Gilbert get her insights on the go. Having made a living privileging her own qualms and elations to their flesh-and-blood sources, it is an easy trick for Gilbert to sidestep the question of her own suitability to her fiancé, on which she spends two pages, in order to bring us among the Hmong, where she discusses arranged marriages, or to her matrilineal forebears, where she finds meaning in a grandmother’s cut-up coat.
Marshaling her arguments, Gilbert puts such notions as Infatuation, Autonomy, Subversion, and Ceremony like generals before a mighty army of facts and experts. (Before 1215, no clergy needed to be present to make a legal marriage! The British author Ferdinand Mount found marriage the most subversive act in the world! Queen Victoria wore the first fluffy white wedding gown!) Finally, as the reader begins to nod off at the 34,987th point of wisdom by some obscure figure of authority, the bride and groom—spoiler alert!—hastily repair to a room filled with a loving but tasteful crowd of friends and family, rings are exchanged, and they retire, as Gilbert puts it, to their “little bit of privacy in which to practice love.”
It would be thrilling if one could conclude, from the glaring absence of Felipe in a work allegedly devoted to his consideration ( Handsome Brazilian relishes fine wines, gemstones, and you! about covers it), that Gilbert really does think there are more interesting places for a woman to be than the happily ever after. (Among the Hmong, for instance.) While Committed fails to make the case that Gilbert is concerned what will happen when she embarks on her second marriage—she is, after all, already married—there is a party to whom Gilbert is pledging her fidelity in a second, high-stakes gamble: readers. And she is terrified what will happen to them when she publishes her second book.
Committed is so abuzz with qualifications, explanations, substantiations, rationalizations, and hesitations directed to the reader—is such an intense argument, apologia, and confession all in one—that even the most glancing perusal will arouse the impulse to either pat Gilbert on the hand or throttle her. “Please understand, I am not an anthropologist and I acknowledge that I am operating far above my pay grade when I make any conjectures about the Hmong culture,” Liz assures us at one point. No worries. “Look, I don’t want to risk romanticizing the oh-so-simple life of the picturesque rural peasant here.” Well, thank heaven. “You see where I am heading with this, right?” she asks in a frequent query, then, “Can I get a few bonus points on this one?” By all means.
“How in the world does one go about writing a book that will satisfy millions?” Gilbert asks us in a preface. After all, keeping a marriage together is one thing—keeping your relationship with a global fan base enraptured for better or for worse is another order of skill entirely. You have to give it to her. She gives it a go. Let’s hope they’ll be very happy together.
Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery , a memoir of teen reading. She lives in Jersey City.