The other night, I was having drinks with my writer friend Megan Gilbert. I can’t remember how it came up, but I mentioned Eat, Pray, Love. Megan rolled her eyes.
“I haven’t read it, but I hate it,” I said.
“I haven’t read it either,” she said, “but I hate it, too.”
There we were, two writers, hating a book neither one of us had read.
Which got us talking. What could this beloved story, this worldwide phenomenon, this book turned vehicle for Julia Roberts’ elastic grin have done to make us such haters?
Well I’ll tell you. (And Megan will tell you, too: here, on her fantastic blog, It Hardly Matters.)
First and foremost, there’s the culture-porn aspect, the idea that a woman can travel to Italy (where she eats!) and India (where she prays!!) and Indonesia (where she loves!!!) and somehow gain enlightenment. I suppose this could happen—and Elizabeth Gilbert and those who adore her would argue that this has happened—but there’s something about it that strikes me as the high-brow equivalent of celebrities strapping on a red kabbalah bracelet or getting cupped. It reads like exoticism. Maybe this is my own limitation—not being able to see transformative power and possibility is my problem, not hers—but there it is: I simply don’t believe it, not (as Tim O’Brien would say) with my stomach.
Something about the process seems inherently inorganic. Knowing that Gilbert sold her book on spec (and good for her—I have to fess up to some writerly jealousy), that she sold the idea of finding enlightenment before she’d actually found it, cheapens the experience for me. As in, well, of course she came out the other side a changed woman—how could she not? Her livelihood as an author depended on it. This is different from say, going off and having an enlightening experience and then selling a book about it. Seems like a nitpicky difference, but to me it’s significant. (And if I’m incorrect about the order of events, please tell me. I’m open to being wrong. More on that in a minute.)
And then of course there’s the business with the film. (This is the least fair point, but if you option your book for the big screen, I think you leave yourself open to this kind of critique. It’s worth noting, though, that a friend who loved the book finds the film commercials infuriating: “This is not a romantic comedy,” she says.) The ads for the film are joyous. They are exhilarating. The first time I saw one I stood rapt in front of the TV with a big, stupid grin on my face, kicking myself for getting drawn into what I was so hell-bent on despising. The use of Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” was a brilliant choice to promote a movie about a very pretty woman who decides to grab life by the meatballs and ride around on a bike and touch an elephant and meditate (unsuccessfully) and then meditate some more (successfully!) and get involved with a very hot young man but then decide that her life has always only been about being with hot men, so she leaves him but then happens to find a better, hotter, older man, and then she’s happy. She is content. She is enlightened.
Now, let me say this. Everything I’ve said is unfair. All of it. Because I haven’t read the book. It could be a lovely book. It could be a wonderful, organic, moving book about a woman who is miserable in her life and seeks a way to become unmiserable. And I don’t want to seem glib. There’s no room for glibness when it comes to writing, which is precisely why the idea of Eat, Pray, Love makes me angry. It feels so glib. But Elizabeth Gilbert could be (and almost certainly is at least a little bit) suffering from the power of the backlash, from the cruel nature of the summary and the sound bite. I have no way of knowing, because as I said, I haven’t read it. And I will acknowledge that there is a sadistic joy in hating something that so many people love, seeing what is superficial and shallow and easy when others don’t and calling bullshit. (I felt that sense of satisfaction about the movie Crash all those years ago. It sounded terrible, and then I watched it and it was even more terrible than I could have imagined. I felt vindicated, smug and powerful knowing I was so much smarter than all those who felt like they’d learned anything interesting or profound about racism by watching two hours of very good actors spouting some of the worst expositional, on-the-nose dialogue in the worst faux-deep wannabe allegory I have ever seen.)
To atone and (ahem) enlighten ourselves, we are embarking on the Eat, Pray, Love Project*. We are going to read the book and then reconvene, right here, to see if we were right (perhaps with some updates from the road). I hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised—though I doubt it! (Ha ha, JK, you guys—I’m totes keeping an open mind! For reals!)
I am not excited about this. There are better-sounding books that I would rather read, but if I’m going to be a hater, I want to know that I’ve earned it.
Here we go! Weeeeeee!
*Update: Megan is now trying to back out of her promise to read the book. I am working on her. Stay tuned.