Wow, this book took me on a roller-coaster ride. I couldn't decide if I loved it or hated it and it seemed like every few pages I'd go from thinking Gilbert was delightfully witty to thinking this was the most horribly self-absorbed person to ever set foot on the earth.
In the end the overall effect was rather like sitting at a party listening to someone tell a long involved story all about themselves, and you're alternately annoyed and fascinated and you want to get up and leave but she's just so entertaining that you keep telling yourself you'll leave in the next minute--and so you end up sticking through the whole thing.
<----- WARNING: LOOONG REVIEW AHEAD :) ------->
I didn't hate Eat, Pray, Love, but it left me really unsatisfied. When I first started reading the book, I couldn't help rolling my eyes and thinking "Here we go, another tale of a precious, privileged woman who is unsatisfied with her life." I stuck with it though and was charmed through the Italy section by Gilbert's humor and down-to-earth writing style. Still, for a woman who abandons everything in search of a true spiritual experience, she leaves most of the important questions unanswered. I felt that Gilbert projects herself so strongly onto every place and every person she encounters that I'm not sure what she really learnt along the way.
As delightful as the Italy section was to read, I felt like she never really stepped out of herself to understand the country on its own terms and to move beyond the stereotype. Despite it being a bit of a superficial assessment, I have no problem with Gilbert associating Italy with pleasure. There is enough beauty there to warrant it.It was more her interpretation of what it means to open oneself to pleasure that bothered me and seemed very narrow. For Gilbert this consisted mostly of overindulging in foods and allowing herself to put on weight. It seemed like she came to Italy thinking she already knew how to experience pleasure and proceeded to enact it based on her definition (even though there are indications that the Italian interpretation of pleasure is not merely restricted to this.) I would have liked to see her explore what it meant to devote herself to pleasure just as seriously and reverently as she seemed to take the meditative experiences in India.
Overall though, my biggest problem with this book was I had difficulty at times believing Gilbert achieved the enlightenment she talks about because she is so internally focused. Most importantly I still have not really grasped why it was necessary for her to travel to these 3 places.
I understand that her intention was not for this book to be a travelogue but it begs the question, "Why was it necessary to go to Italy, India and Indonesia if the purpose was to not to gain something from them that could not be found elsewhere?" In every country Gilbert created a little security blanket of expat friends who seemed to cushion her from really understanding the lessons the countries had to offer on their own terms. Why go to India to meet Richard the big Texan Guru, for example? Why not just go to Texas?
For those of us with "eyelids only half-caked with dirt" but who can't uproot our lives and travel to countries of our choosing is "enlightenment" still an option? I wanted Gilbert to talk more about how anyone with an ordinary life but who is searching for insight could still balance spiritual yearning with duty.
And that's my final peeve about this book. I wondered if Gilbert had any sense of duty or sense of obligation to anything beyond herself. Gilbert seems to recognize the bonds of duty that restrict the locals she encounters. Yet, she somehow paints them as pleasurable or inevitable yokes for the people who bear them. Her detached observations of life and death rituals in India and Indonesia as though they are restricted to those parts of the world made me want to shake her and say "but there are rituals everywhere; you have made a conscious decision to remove yourself from the ones you know."
I ask about duty not because I wanted Gilbert to stay in a loveless marriage but because the concept of duty is also linked to a concept of justice. What is it that we ought to do? What do we owe each other?
Part of me felt that Gilbert took comfort in the non-dual aspects of Eastern philisophies in a strange way. She seemed almost relieved that the non-duality of existence would ensure that one would not necessarily be punished by the universe for selfish deeds. I felt like Gilbert embraced that aspect of the philosophy without realizing the equal importance those cultures place on the balancing notions of reciprocity, duty, of being social beings in the truest sense (often taking it to the other negative extreme).
The lack of sense of obligation to anyone other than herself made Gilbert seem curiously dead to the contradictions around her. She didn't seem perturbed at the abject poverty of the Indian women around her, or to question if it was just. She never wondered how a spiritual person should grapple with the injustice of the world, nor did she seem to question the "rightness" of living in the midst of poverty in an artificial environment created to specifically cater to pampered Westerners. In Indonesia, she finally seems to see beyond herself to the suffering of others but when she does try to help someone it seems impulsive and done almost with carelessness so that the whole thing almost becomes a big mess.
After all of this, the end of the book just seemed to fall flat as Gilbert tried to wrap things up quickly, crowning it all of course with a romance with a doting and exotic lover.
This book had a lot of potential but ultimately it seemed like a story about one woman's sense of entitlement and her inability to ever quite move beyond that though she does make some valiant efforts to do so.
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