Eat, Pray, Love

I’ve now finished the first of three sections in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and although at first I found the writing style a bit glib and Gilbert’s sense of humor a little silly, I now find myself completely won over. The book is about how Gilbert decided to spend a year traveling after suffering through a bitter divorce and a heart-wrenching affair; she travels first to Italy to find pleasure, then to India to practice devotion, and then to Indonesia to try to find a balance between the two.

In the Italian section, Gilbert finds pleasure mainly by eating the best food possible in Rome and every other Italian city she travels to. She also takes joy in learning Italian, first through lessons at a language school and then simply by talking to as many Italians as she can.

Part of what won me over was simply the forthright honesty with which Gilbert tells her story — she describes her horrendous divorce in ways that make it clear just how awful it was but that also don’t ask for your pity and don’t sound whiny or self-indulgent. I think her light, almost glib tone works better when she’s describing something serious; somehow the serious subject matter modulates the voice so that it comes across as brave rather than annoyingly light.

But I also like the ideas she’s exploring, and, as I understand it, the next section on prayer and devotion are even more idea-driven, so I’m looking forward to it. In the Italian section, she writes a lot about the pursuit of pleasure and why she and Americans generally have such a hard time with it. These passages really spoke to me:

Generally speaking, though, Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that’s not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment … Americans don’t really know how to do nothing. This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype — the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax.

For me, though, a major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure? This is very American, too — the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness. Planet Advertising in American orbits completely around the need to convince the uncertain consumer that yes, you have actually warranted a special treat.

I can be like this — not able to enjoy myself and relax and do nothing because I’m haunted by this feeling that I need to be using my time productively, need to be doing something worthwhile, need to be improving myself in some way. I am very much an inheritor of that Puritan guilt, the mindset and work-ethic that turns pleasure-seeking into a sin.

Towards the end of the section, Gilbert writes this:

It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn’t have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt — this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.

Isn’t that last sentence beautiful? Seeking beauty in life is not a bad goal to have at all.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

16 responses to “Eat, Pray, Love

  1. I’ve recently devoured Eat, Pray, Love – and I loved it. The next two sections are equally addictive and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them. I came away feeling quite envious of her year off. I agree with what you say about pleasure and having been to France and Italy, I can attest that these Europeans are very good at it.

  2. hepzibah

    Hi Dorothy! I really enjoyed your post and I was struck by the quotes that you had chosen, especially the last one.

    I also sometimes wonder whether it is possible to do “nothing” – I am probably the most guilty of this. My friends always make fun of me – “don’t you go anywhere without your backpack?” I just smile and feign laughter. But, I feel lost without my books/notebooks/endless clutter sometimes. I don’t think it is possible for me – maybe when I was younger, but not now. Whenever I have free second, I write…so I’m not sure where this leaves me.

  3. I hate not doing nothing to be honest, and I am not sure that is always such a good thing! I have this need to always be productive, too. I liked the first part of the book the best personally. Some of it is a bit silly, but it was enjoyable for some reason, though I felt terrible for her at the beginning–she seemed so lost. Looking forward to hearing what you think of the rest of the book. The India part is quite different than the Italy part!

  4. Hmmm, you may be right, Dorothy, it does seem like a book that I might like.

    I thought about what Gilbert wrote on not being able to relax into pleasure. I wonder if the relentless pursuit of entertainment has as much to do with our inability to be at rest? It takes more effort to be at rest than it is to occupy your mind.

    It’s something that happens when I’m travelling with friends. I would like to just sit at a cafe and chill out – and there would be the disbelief and slight disapproval. You’re on a holiday, you spent all that money on the flight, the hotel and stuff, — you’re supposed to “do something.” If we wanted to “do nothing” we could have done it at home.

    And I identify with hepzibah on going around with the backpack all the time. I alway bring a slingbag around. Wouldn’t leave home without it.

    “You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”
    ~ You are right about this being a beautiful line, and so true. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we don’t need this pain, and we deserve to be happy.

  5. I have heard so much about this book, and yet I haven’t quite got to the point of really wanting it. People have loved it and so I wonder what holds me back. Still, I’ve enjoyed very much reading it through other people’s words, like here, Dorothy. I do like the bits you quote. I tend to think that extremes attract each other, so extreme work ethics and deprivation result in binges and recklessness. I do wonder why moderation is such a difficult state to find!

  6. Charlotte, I’m well into the India section now and liking it a lot — I’m trying to convince myself not to rush through it too quickly because it deserves a slower pace!

    Hepzibah — thanks and thanks for commenting! I’m not actually all that interested in doing nothing — as in really truly nothing — I suspect she’s talking more about doing nothing productive or nothing that others would value or that’s going to earn us money or whatever. I’d feel lost without my books too!

    Danielle, I felt really terrible for her too, although I admire her for how she makes sense of everything that happened. I’m enjoying the India section, but I know that’s at least partly because I’m interested in all the spirituality stuff — I remember you saying that’s not really your thing, which would make the section less enjoyable, I’m sure.

    Orpheus — I think you’re right that the search for entertainment begins with our inability to be at rest — than we’d have to sit with ourselves, which is too often highly unpleasant. I’d love to know your thoughts on the book if you do read it — and yeah, I think you’d like it.

    Litlove, I’m loving this book, but I can see how not everyone would — maybe it’s too raw? or too much about spirituality? I guess what interests me is the way she makes herself so vulnerable. The book seems like one big risk — or maybe that’s true about any memoir-type book.

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  8. Count me in as suffering from the guilt of the Puritan work ethic. I’ve been trying very hard over the last couple of years to spend time now and then doing nothing, but oh, it’s so hard! The last quote is quite lovely. I think it is something we all instintively know, but it gets overwhelmed and squashed in the rush of everyday.

  9. Yes, I agree, it is very hard, but a worthwhile effort! I suppose to do often do nothing — nothing “useful” or productive — but I can’t do it well without guilt or anxiety.

  10. I think I was expecting more of a travel narrative sort of book–similar to the first section. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school nearly my entire school life, but I have really gotten away from the church. I have not yet found a way to mesh some form of spirituality with the more mundane aspects of life. I just have a problem reconciling the way things are with how they should be. I suppose again it is a matter of timing.

  11. I felt the same way about the book at the beginning–I liked what she was saying but I found her glib and whiny at the same time. But then she won me over. By the end I was cheering her on!

  12. That’s my experience exactly, Gentle Reader — I’ve now finished the second section, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

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  14. Nancy M.

    you are all aware I assume that Elizabeth wasn’t ‘doing nothing’ as she claims on her ‘year off” – she was PAID in ADVANCE by her publisher to write this book….and that’s what she did while ‘doing nothing’ – wrote a book!!!! Hardly seems like relaxing for ‘pure pleasure’ – give me that ‘do nothing’ job – I find her writing tedious and self indulgent – how many times is she going to tell us and everyone she meets that she’s a writer, published three books, waiting on movie deals, etc….come ON!!

  15. LYNN

    KEEP READING…the section on Italy I found that she is a whiny, completly self-indulgent person…a real ME person. Considering that she really didn’t have real traumas in her childhood or adult life she is a very self absorbed, but that is the point of her struggles & journey, the one we all face. Just finished the India section and I’m understanding her better.

  16. I’m reading this now. So far I love it. She’s still in Italy. It’s the appreciation for simple things like gelato and freedom.

    Oddly, one of the quotes that stands out to me is “I am a resident of Rome.”

    Those simple words…And she did what Romans do. Ate and spoke Italian. She wasn’t like a tourist. This is transformation. All people have this ability to transform into what they aspire to be, but few actually take the steps to do it and even fewer embrace it as it is happening.

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