The Eat, Pray, Love Project

12 Sep

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.

Blech.

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.)

So.

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.

8 Responses to “The Eat, Pray, Love Project”

  1. meredithkaufman September 13, 2010 at 11:13 am #

    Thank you! I got through a lot of the book because I like eating pasta so much that I’ll read about someone else doing it. But the Shoots and Ladders approach to spirituality was condescending. Im no expert on Buddhism, but Im pretty sure that allowing yourself to be bitten by 26 mosquitos while meditating in India does not earn you a direct path to nirvana.

  2. sarah October 27, 2010 at 7:12 pm #

    Well, if doing all those things she does in that book will lead me to Javier Bardem then SIGN ME UP!

    Otherwise, I have ZERO interest in “Eat Pray Love”. And I was mildly annoyed that a song by my New Favorite Band was used in all the promos for it.

  3. Amanda November 1, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Things that I loved about this post:
    1) The Tim O’Brien reference (have always loved that line)
    2) The fact that you are going to read a book that you will (inevitably, I mean COME ON) hate so that your hate will be credible.

    Reason I love these things:
    I have done both these things.
    New reader for sure.

    Also, should be Elizabeth GLIBert, amirite?

  4. Jennifer November 1, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Like you, I refused to read the book on principle. I did, however, cave in and see the movie, and I was profoundly irritated by the end of it…I mean, who wouldn’t find enlightenment and love when you spend a year kicking around Italy, India, and Indonesia with seemingly limitless funds? I thought it was trite, and now that I know she wrote the book on spec makes it all the more irritating.

  5. leonora November 1, 2010 at 6:53 pm #

    “Culture Porn”, a perfect description.

  6. Lisa November 19, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Hah, my sister turned me onto this blog because she knows how I feel about this book. I did read it but I never bothered to finish the last 20 or so pages (and believe me, I’ve finished some totally crappy books in my time). I felt it was totally self-indulgent.

    Show me a woman who works 40 hours a week for $20,000 a year, then comes home by bus at 7:00 at night to feed her kids and take care of her family, only to do it again the next day… Show me that woman finding enlightenment however she needs to find it, and I’ll be inspired. But this? Please.

    She didn’t even get dumped–she did the dumping.

    Really, the whole thing is insulting to those of us with real, serious problems in our lives. And we can’t take a round the world trip to get away from them.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Eat, Rock, Slack « Such a Pretty Face - November 3, 2010

    […] Last night’s Florence + the Machine show got me thinking about my hard-core slacking on the Eat, Pray, Love Project. (You probably can’t see it so well from my terrible iPhone shot, but that’s […]

  2. My New Year’s Resolution is… « Such a Pretty Face - January 16, 2011

    […] I started the endeavor to read the book back in October. I made my way through Italy and part of India, then put the book down and never picked it up again. I did make some notes, though, while I was reading. Shall I share those? Let’s see if I can decipher them well enough to make any sort of sense. […]

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