The Montefeltro altarpiece also known as Virgin with child, saints, angels and Federigo II da Montefeltro [detail of Christ child wearing coral beads], Piero della Francesca, 1465. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. The coral beads have two purposes in this painting, functional and symbolic. Renaissance infants sometimes used coral beads for teething. In the visual vocabulary of the Renaissance painter, they were also a symbol of resurrection and rebirth.
In Eat Pray Love, Gilbert divides her book into 109 chapters. This division mirrors the number of beads in a japa mala. The japa mala is a garland of beads (108 mala beads + 1 guru bead) used in Buddhist and Hindu meditation practice.
Among modern memoirs Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s recounting of her one year odyssey for self-knowledge, is a cultural phenomenon. It is also a book which I did not finish the first time I picked it up, choosing to abandon Gilbert somewhere in Indonesia. The movie of the same name and starring Julia Roberts followed to wildly lukewarm reviews. I didn’t go to see it. I probably never will. However, about two years later, I happened to watch a TED talk by Gilbert. With humor, charm and easy grace, she explored the nature of creativity and the onus of having hit the metaphorical ball out of the metaphorical memoir park when she penned Eat Pray Love. She even provided her construct for overcoming the “maddening capriciousness of the creative process”. Quite simply, she urged us to place a premium on the discipline of daily work and to welcome the brief fleeting moments of sublime inspiration. After that talk, I circled back around to Eat Pray Love and this time the humanized Gilbert and I made it all the way through Indonesia and every one of her 109 japa mala chapters.
My journey with Gilbert, however, was not over.
Shortly thereafter, Eat Pray Love was the monthly selection of my book club. It is a
diverse group, my book club, representing different cultures, different backgrounds, different life stages. Once a month we gather, bridged by good food, good wine and good literature. After dinner, we began discussing the book. One of the members remarked that she would dearly love to go to an ashram for three months as Gilbert did. But how, she wondered, could she do something like that with small children at home? It was out of the question.
Was it out of the question? Some group members came up with alternatives. One offered to take our ashram-longing member to a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York for a weekend of meditation. Another suggested that every member of the group help with the children while our ashram-longing member went on a three month retreat in India. Still another observed that he thought that women belonged at home with the children and not on an ashram without the children.
"What if going to the ashram would make her a better mother?" This question came from a group member seated next to me.
I don't think she was heard over the competing voices. It's too bad. It was a valid way to view the longing of our friend because it considered the value of both her inner life and her outerworld and how they are so intimately linked. How our ashram-longing member should choose is hers alone to discover but I believe the unacknowledged question was the one that might provide an authentic answer. It identifies a possibility for women’s lives that is still unimaginable in many parts of the world. It is also the kind of desire which drove Gilbert to leave her marriage and embark on a pilgrimage across Italy, India, and Indonesia.
The fiercer critics of Eat Pray Love condemn the work for the inherent privilege which
underlies its premise, the privilege which enables Gilbert to spend a year in three different countries on the path to enlightenment, a journey out of the reach of most readers no matter how much they might be willing to sacrifice to make it happen. More moderate critics, such as Jennifer Eagan of The New York Times, note that Gilbert has chosen to omit any thoughtful exploration of her story’s darker aspects, her depression and suicidality. For myself, it was
Gilbert’s predictable path toward romance as resolution which prompted my initial departure around prayer bead 90.
I cannot recall ever returning to a book which I found too unsatisfactory to complete on the first read. However, Gilbert’s appealing humanity in her TED talk persuaded me to look again and I am glad that I did. She writes as she speaks, with wit and grace. Even her critics allow for that. It is true that this work is not the kind of frank piece of literary introspection one might expect from Mary Karr or Joan Didion. By choosing not to explore the darker aspects of her journey, Gilbert tells a different kind of tale and one, I believe, which contributes to a larger understanding of feminine narrative.
Conventional storytelling structure, the classic monomyth which focuses on male
individuation and conquest, identifies women as trophies, the ultimate reward of the hero. Our culture reflects the biases of that narrative paradigm. In Eat Pray Love Gilbert confronts three of the relational dilemmas that western women, perhaps the majority of the world’s women, face. These are relationship with body, relationship to the spirit, and relationship to one’s own power or agency. Each is the focus of a different country; Italy with Gilbert’s embrace of the pleasure of food, India with her search for a more immediate connection to the divine, Indonesia with her growing sense of her own agency as she joins a community, falls in love, and affects change.
This reclaiming of body, soul and life is the thread which runs through this decidedly
feminine memoir. It is how Eat Pray Love links the internal and external landscape of one woman and, by doing so, tells a story of feminine transformation from the inside out. By choosing to bypass her darker psychological struggles, Gilbert has created more of a true tale than a true account, but profoundly true it is nonetheless.