Recently, in a bout of emotional lowness and in need of inspiration, I returned to a book that I was once obsessed with in the hopes that it could once again perform the miracle of uplifting my soul. That book? Eat, Pray, Love.
I remember first reading this book as an unemployed twenty-three year old only six months removed from the end of my college relationship. Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir was already a long-reigning best seller, but I’d resisted its charms, thinking it wasn’t for me. Until, waiting in a now-defunct Borders store in Manhattan for a date I wasn’t emotionally prepared to go on, I picked it up to “see what all the fuss was about”. And though I went into the reading a skeptic, I emerged a convert, transported by the belief that anything was possible.
So, while nothing can ever really match that elation of first discovery, I returned to Eat, Pray, Love with the hope that a little trace of magic still lay within its pages. Unfortunately, I was left with a very different reaction this time around.
I’m not sure if it’s that I’m older and at a much different phase of my life. It could be that as a writer myself, I now read much more critically than I used to. Or maybe it’s that the world itself has changed, shifting priorities and values. I imagine it’s probably a combination of the three. But whatever the cause, I closed the book this time around with less a feeling of hope, than of irritation.
What struck me most about reading Eat, Pray, Love as a thirty-something woman in 2018 was the galling levels of blind privilege Gilbert carries with her on this worldwide adventure. How did I miss that the first time around? There are even moments when she seems on the brink of awareness, but it quickly slips away. She calls herself a “flamingo”, her blonde paleness making her stick out like a sore thumb wherever she travels and contrasts herself to friends with ambiguous skin tones that “allow” them to blend in wherever they go, the undercurrent of envy readily apparent. She compares herself to “the long-suffering Sicilian people” and says in a single sentence that unlike them, she “had the resources (financial, artistic and emotional)” to work out her identity crisis; the closest she really comes to contemplating her privilege. And this is long before her White Savior moment of gifting an Indonesian mother with the funds to build a house.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed by revisiting a book I once loved, but it is a little different than realizing that the Oompa Loompas were basically slaves or that sweet Ma and Pa Ingalls were hella racist to Native Americans. Eat, Pray, Love is not 100 years old, it’s little more than ten. It’s not only a major cultural touchstone, but a kind of shorthand (“this is my Eat, Pray, Love”). Just as every thriller for the last six years has been dubbed “the new Gone Girl” Eat, Pray, Love has practically spawned its own genre, not to mention a book actually called Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. So I can’t read the scenes where she playfully throws around the insult “homo” without cringing, or excuse it as the playful banter of a different time. Though the irony is almost hilarious, given that Gilbert would later fall in love with her female best friend.
And yet, after all that, after the irritation and critical reading and disappointment, I didn’t really want to hate this book that I’d once loved so much. And here, Gilbert and I are actually in agreement. In a new introduction to the 10th Anniversary edition, she wrote:
“People sometimes make fun of this book. Sometimes I make fun of it…
But let’s forget for a moment about who wrote Eat Pray Love, and let’s remember who read it—millions and millions of women all over the world, who used it as a doorway through which they stepped into an expanded sense of their own worth, their own possibilities, their own destinies. They used this story as a permission slip to ask themselves their own questions—often for the first time in their lives.
And you cannot make fun of that, because that’s important.”
Indeed it is.
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