Book: Committed Author: Elizabeth Gilbert Pages: 279 Readable Pages: 44 Sample line: “Darling, our lives are about to get a lot more interesting.”
Say this for Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Committed, the No. 1 nonfiction bestseller: It recently evicted Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue from the top of the list. That, I thought, was a blessing. But then I began reading Committed. And I discovered that Palin-for-Gilbert was a poor trade. Palin may be an egomaniac and occasionally lose the plot, but her second act will inevitably be better than Gilbert’s.
I haven’t read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, her “megajumbo international bestseller,” to borrow her line. The motto of this column is that the backlist is for weenies. But this creates a rather odd sensation when reading Gilbert now. It is like being introduced to someone at a party whom you’re told is wondrously successful…and then realizing you don’t have the slightest idea who the person is, and, moreover, no idea how they could be so successful.
The plot: After the post-divorce catharsis of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert settled down with a Brazilian dreamboat she calls Felipe. There’s some unpleasantness with the Department of Homeland Security, and Felipe and Liz wind up in diplomatic limbo, floating through Asia until they can get back to the U.S.A. and get married. Gilbert had resolved never to marry again, so this is some kind of step. Committed offers her a chance to make peace with the institution of marriage.
In an early scene, Gilbert goes to a Hmong village on the Vietnam-China border. She asks the Hmong women about marriage—what’s it like, what they expected from their mates, and so forth. This seems like a decent idea. Except that Gilbert is so insecure about the whole premise of the book (she mentions in the introduction that she discarded an early draft) that she can hardly write a declarative sentence.
“Please understand, I am not an anthropologist,” she writes. Well, no one expected Margaret Mead. “I’m not saying that these women don’t love their husbands,” she continues. Of course you aren’t. “Let me be clear… All that said… That said, we have to be careful… May I pause here for a moment… I must add here… Look…I don’t mean to imply… I don’t want to suggest…” Gilbert piles caveats upon caveats, creating a kind of Hmong village of self-doubt. If, as Gilbert tells us, the modern world of free marriage is a “neurosis-generating machine of the highest order,” then she should check out her prose.
What’s her point? I marched along, desperate to find it. Still unsure whether she can say “I do,” Gilbert lays out a historical case against marriage. Did you know that some early Christians didn’t want people to get married? That the church nosed its way into marriage only when it benefited its political ends? That there were hideous laws in America and elsewhere against interracial marriage? Laws that enforced coverture? Gilbert’s point is that matrimony’s historical baggage is making her blue. That feels phony. That feels like Gilbert the writer got stuck and needed to pad out some chapters.
There is page upon page of this stuff (including caveats: “What I mean to say is…”), until one inspired section in which Committed becomes truly wonderful. Gilbert introduces us to her 96-year-old grandmother, Maude. Maude was born with facial deformity and hence not considered the marrying type. So Maude got herself educated, got a job, made a little money. She lived as a footloose single lady, the kind who indulged in permanent waves and would drop $20 on a coat with a fur collar. Then, she got married to a farmer. Out went the money and the fur coat and in came the kids. But as she tells Gilbert, her marriage led to some of the happiest days of her life.
Next, we meet Gilbert’s mother, who also has a tricky history with marriage. After giving birth to Gilbert and her sister, she began working days at Planned Parenthood in Connecticut, surfing the feminist wave of the 1970s. One day, her girls got chicken pox. Dad refused to stay home with them—that’s what wives were for. So Gilbert’s mom ended her career, just like that.
Mom’s cosmic payback is to be a domineering presence in Dad’s life. “My father resembles nothing more than a puzzled old circus bear who cannot seem to figure out how he came to be quite so domesticated,” she writes. (She writes in many fine sentences.)
These passages (contained in pages 158 to 202) are not just the most readable part of Committed. They are the only part of the book that feels halfway organic. You can see why Gilbert would look upon marriage with dread—how, unlike her talks with the Hmong women or her mandatory citation of Loving v. Virginia, her family would be enough to convince her that marriage was something to fear.
But then, in the span of a few pages, it’s over. We’re back to Gilbert’s tedious history lesson. As a piece of non-fiction, Committed should have been either a lot better or a lot worse. It could have been a serious family memoir. Or else a full-on chick-lit bacchanalia, in which Gilbert quizzed every patron at T.G.I. Friday’s about their pre-nup. Instead, it’s is a book written by someone who has no idea what she wants, both nuptially or bookishly speaking. Give me Palin. This woman writes like a runaway bride.
Read it? No.
William Boot covered the war in Ishmaelia and wrote the Lush Places column for The Daily Beast. He now reviews commercial fiction.