08.12.10

A Man's Guide to Eat Pray Love

As the Julia Roberts movie opens, here’s everything a regular guy should know about Elizabeth Gilbert's mega-selling book. Bryan Curtis on the author’s slick writing, magnetic personality, and surprising spirituality.

If you are a male, you have perhaps been looking to Friday, August 13, with confusion and a little trepidation. You’ve heard about a cultural behemoth called Eat Pray Love that’s lumbering toward a theater near you. For years, you’ve seen the book—in purses, atop nightstands, stacked up triumphantly on the front tables of Barnes & Noble. And through basic cultural osmosis you learned its broad outlines: woman, travel, freeing of spirit, yoga. But you still don’t understand what Eat, Pray, Love is, and you fear that you’ll be dragged to the Julia Roberts movie version unawares.

Relax.

Gilbert writes like a guru master. This was a happy surprise for me.

I read Eat, Pray, Love (this week). I did some hard thinking about it (yesterday). I am going to try to explain the book, the movement, the mythology—and why, heaven forbid, you might even like it. So close your eyes, block out your ambivalent feelings, and step into my ashram…

What is Eat, Pray, Love?

Eat, Pray, Love, or EPL, as it is known by acolytes, is a 334-page memoir that was published in 2006. Here’s what happens: A woman got married and, somewhere on the far side of 30, decided she didn’t want to have kids. This made her miserable. So she ditched her husband and left on an intense journey of self-exploration to three countries that, not coincidentally, begin with I: Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eating, praying, and loving are what she does in these places, respectively.

Who is responsible for this?

The author’s name is Elizabeth Gilbert. Before writing the book, she was a novelist, nonfiction writer (a finalist for the National Book Award), and gifted magazine writer who, among other things, wrote the story that became the basis for the movie Coyote Ugly. Before Eat, Pray, Love, a great deal of Gilbert’s writing concerned itself with men.

Actually, she sounds pretty interesting.

She is! A fan told me Liz Gilbert is like the friend who goes abroad and sends you dazzling emails from the Internet cafe. This gets her perfectly—she’s someone you’re both enraptured by and envious of. Gilbert, now 41, is tall and blond and pink-cheeked. She attracts friends on her travels as if with a tractor beam. (“I can make friends with the dead,” she writes.) Everyone seems to adore Liz. With men, she tells us she’s “the planet’s most affectionate life form—somewhere between a golden retriever and a barnacle.”

So what’s her problem?

The loveless marriage. A subsequent affair which ended badly. A thirtysomething “what am I doing here” malaise. A penchant, as one character notes, for being a control freak. All this left Gilbert buried under a pile of negative thoughts and sobbing on many a bathroom floor. She was a mess.

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OK, but be honest—is Eat, Pray, Love one of those chick-lit books in which the damaged woman eats piles of delicious food, has a cathartic conversation with Mom, strikes an armistice with her big sis, has colorful, impossibly charismatic friends who pop up at opportune times to offer witty advice, and buys pretty lingerie not for some man but just for her?

Actually, yes, all of those things happen in Eat, Pray, Love.

Oh dear God…

Wait, wait, wait! As any EPL adherent will tell you, that isn’t what the book is really about. There are lots of reasons to like it, even for men.

Rachel Shukert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s God ObsessionGive me one.

Gilbert writes like a guru master. This was a happy surprise for me. Eat, Pray, Love feels less like chick lit than a writer using traditional chick-lit mileposts to lure the reader into something far more ambitious.

The memoir is loaded with fine sentences. Here’s Gilbert on an ecstatic experience with a pizza: “The mushrooms here are like big thick sexy tongues, and the prosciutto drapes over pizzas like a fine lace veil draping over a fancy lady’s hat.” Later, she tells us, “I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’—the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit, and howl.”

It’s this monkey mind that’s her greatest authorial gift. Gilbert has learned to unspool her mental processes—her cogitating, her second thoughts—on paper with enormous care and considerable seduction. And just as she seems to be hopelessly lost inside her head, she jolts you with a short, declarative sentence: “I have a new friend.” Or: “A word about my body.”

Is there religion in Eat, Pray, Love?

Yup. Gilbert wants to find God.

Which God is this?

My son, Gilbert believes there are many stairways to heaven—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism. Asked to specify her own deity, she says, “ I believe in a magnificent God.” So the deity she seeks in Eat, Pray, Love is wise and powerful, but also blurry and all-inclusive, much like the God who resides in Mitch Albom’s bestsellers.

So does Gilbert find her God?

Yes, in India, through a wormhole.

Does this encounter make her a new kind of creature?

After meeting God, Gilbert says she is a “student on the ever-shifting border near the wonderful, scary forest of the new.”

OK, now you’re scaring me. Is the whole thing this woo-woo? It sounds like I’m about to be trapped in a theater for two hours with Shirley MacLaine.

Gilbert is no Shirley MacLaine. Glowing chakras are kept to a minimum. You sense in EPL that beyond being close to God, she’s interested in putting these religious experiences into vivid language. She loves writing. Coming out of her divine encounter, she says, “I watched my ego return the way you watch a Polaroid photo develop, instant-by-instant getting clearer—there’s the face, there are the lines around the mouth, there are the eyebrows—yes, now it’s finished: There is a picture of regular old me.” That’s nicely put, no matter where you come down the wormhole.

I saw Javier Bardem in the trailer. I assume he’s the love interest?

Correct. Bardem plays Felipe, a hunky, hopelessly chivalrous Brazilian nearly two decades Gilbert’s senior who sweeps her off her feet by being as damaged as she is.

So is there any sex?

Yes, but it’s very tasteful, so don’t get too excited.

So no sex. What’s left—yoga?

Yoga is a very big part of this book. It takes up nearly the whole India section. On the trail of her guru, Gilbert stays at an ashram for four months, and she attempts to describe yoga from the mat up. She starts with the intellectual foundations: that the “yogic path is about disentangling the built-in glitches of the human condition,” overcoming “our heartbreaking inability to sustain commitment.” You will learn why it is important, in the Guru Gita, to sit still and chant uninterrupted for one and a half hours.

I don’t do yoga, so all of this was news to me.

You seem oddly taken with this book.

Maybe so. I was expecting The Secret with a side of rigatoni.

But I have some very big reservations about the book. Mostly, that EPL feels a little too pat, as if Gilbert were being carried toward enlightenment on one of those people-movers at the airport. Just as she hits a snag, a friend—figures like “Richard from Texas” and annoyingly charming Luca Spaghetti—offer just the right, pithy advice, in quotes that sound like they were put through Gilbert’s word processor for a sprucing.

It’s also important to know is that Gilbert began this crazy, life-changing, spiritual quest by getting a book contract to document the quest. As a reader, this made me more wary than I normally am when I read a memoir. Not because I suspect Gilbert is being insincere, but because I suspect she was eyeing everyone—the cute Italian boys, Luca Spaghetti, the deity Himself—as material.

So why is this appealing to millions? What does Liz Gilbert do that makes people carry her around like their guru?

There are lots of recovery memoirs. Lots of books about divorce. I think Gilbert’s secret is the miles she covers. Even if you feel the journey is rendered a little too slickly, you’re struck by the difference between the shattered, sobbing creature at the beginning and the one at the end who says, “I have never felt less burdened by myself or the world.” You truly believe Gilbert has changed. You’ve seen her do the work, chant the chants, seek out the Indonesian medicine men. It feels a little like an account of the construction of a skyscraper. You have seen the bricks and mortar, and now you can admire the whole edifice. By the end of the book, I admired Gilbert, even when I found her cloying.

I also thought Gilbert was brave. “I just want God,” she writes. “I want God inside me. I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water.” Is it too much? Is the metaphor strained? Maybe, but she means it. She’s swinging for the fences.

Also, Oprah loved it.

So do you have any final words before I see Eat Pray Love?

Breathe, my friend.

The movie isn’t nearly as good as the book.

And if none of this sounds appealing, The Expendables should be playing down the hall.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.