Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book (Phenomena?) Review: Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert

Lauren thought: 

I had long meant to read Eat, Pray, Love because I felt it was important to read it prior to seeing the film, and that I should see the film because it was one of those ‘cultural moments’ of my lifetime and generation that it would be shame to not take part in.  So, I bought a copy of Eat, Pray, Love with the intention of drowning out the rest of the world’s opinions until I could form one for myself.

The book has been read by literally millions of people around the world and has had an undeniable impact upon Western culture of late. Many of my peers, and indeed, many of the people I most admire and look up to, are part of the group who have made Eat, Pray, Love their most recent bugbear, referring to the book’s movement as part of ‘the problem’ of bourgeois Western society and sneering down upon its Oprah’s Book Club sticker seal of approval.

My favourite books have all been ones which have completely changed my opinion of them throughout the read. I started off passionately disliking Eat, Pray, Love. Passionately. Disliking. I would whinge and groan the minute anybody asked me how it was, complaining that Elizabeth was so overly melancholy and weak that it was making it impossible to enjoy her story. How could the book be so depressing if I was only twenty pages in? How could I possibly persevere?! Of course, being a book about stepping out of melancholy and into happiness and finding self empowerment, this all began to change once I’d gotten out of the divorced-midthirties-writer-with-severe-issues scene setting and into Italy. It was then, with Elizabeth’s tales of pasta and gelato and beautiful men and balmy evenings, that I began to appreciate her writing style and the lessons she had to share, and I found myself whipping through the first section on pleasure 

I really enjoyed the format of the book. The one hundred and eight short chapters worked for me at a time when I was very busy with work and could only find space to read during lunch or in the early mornings or evenings. The chapters are short, a couple of pages at the most, which meant I could finish at the end of a chapter every time I read; a wonderful point of closure for anyone with slight obsessive compulsive tendencies such as my own. It also meant, after the initial stages, that the book was very pacey and moved along through the chapters without pausing for too much sentimental reflection, something which, in my opinion, is the key element that saves the book from becoming soppy and over the top.

As Eat, Pray, Love moved through the three sections and into India (Pray) and Bali (Love), I was interested by the information Gilbert passed on about Eastern medicine and spiritual practices while telling her tale. At the time of reading I had been practicing yoga for a couple of months, and reading one short chapter included which gave an overview of yoga and it’s benefits completely altered my perception of the exercise. In particular, the excerpt, “Why do we practice Yoga?” he asked again. “Is it so we can become a little bendier than our neighbours? Or is there some higher purpose?” stayed, nagging, in my mind for days (ch 38, p 127). It was simple little sections like this found throughout the book that I found inspiring, or which opened my mind in a new direction.  

It’s important to recognise that this book is not a self help book, even though it has been talked about pretty much as one since its release. At no point does Gilbert give instruction to her reader, lay down home work or try to fix anybody else’s problems. She simply tells a story, her story, and it happens to be a pretty remarkable one that many people have found inspiring.

There have been grievances aired by those who do not think that a woman in Gilbert’s position; wealthy, physically healthy, surrounded by supportive friends and with a brilliant career, had the right to take the course of action that she did. There is an underlying tone to this response that speaks to all who have found Elizabeth Gilbert’s words comforting, for all those who have been inspired to make change in their own lives, to pipe down, stop complaining and get on with it. There is always this kind of response when one group of people get inspired to ask questions and demand better lives. In this instance, it’s saddened me to see authors, musicians, independent artists and merchants whose work I like and whose opinion I formerly respected call this book and the effect it has had on people ridiculous, silly or ‘part of the problem’ within our society. It saddens me because if any of these people chose to pack up and head off on a spiritual meditation and yoga retreat in India they would be applauded and lauded as the Kings of Cool, and they know it. Effectively, they want to deny others the right they give themselves to happiness, which is completely unfair. Just because a person is a housewife, or because they’ve chosen to stick with a 9-5 job or they enjoy working for large corporations, because maybe they’ve chosen the path in life that is less ‘cool’, does not make them less worthy people or mean that their lives should be less filled with joy.

I can honestly say that I really enjoyed reading Eat, Pray, Love. I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, but then most books aren’t, I enjoyed it because it addresses a lot of topics I’m currently interested in. I think that the public response to the book, both the love for it and the hate, have been very telling of where our society is at right now and has changed the way I think about my audience when I’m writing myself. After reading the book I did, as planned, go and see the film and I liked that too. I think it would be a much better film for those who had read the book than those who haven’t, having the knowledge to augment the stories that movies just don’t have time to get through. Eat, Pray, Love; I wouldn’t say it’s completely changed my life, but I do think it’s made an impact for the better, as most books do, and I’m very glad I gave it a try.

Ell-Leigh thought: 

Let me start with this fact: I saw the movie first. And the movie, despite it’s potential for brilliance and the casting of Javier Bardem, James Franco and Billy Crudup, was not very good. The trailer also featured the song Sweet Disposition by the Temper Trap, which meant to me that this film was going to be great (it also featured in the (500) Days of Summer trailer, and I wasn’t wrong there now, was I?). I was a bit disappointed.

I didn’t have too much of a problem with it, except perhaps the ending. I loved the gorgeous colourful settings and the lessons we get to watch Elizabeth learn. I related to her depression and marveled as she pulled herself out of it.

I told my Mum she should go see it. She didn’t like it. Who was Julia Roberts to travel around the world the moment she decided she didn’t like her husband anymore? There wasn’t even a problem in their marriage, she couldn’t put a bit more effort in and give it another try? Geez, if we all had the money to take a huge trip around the world every time we thought we wanted to be single again… etc, etc.

Reading the book I discovered that a lot of the things I disliked about the film were the parts that weren’t part of the original story. The prose is honest and easy to read and the short chapter format works really well as it allows for many ideas to be discussed without losing our attention. At the end of each of the sections (Italy, India and Bali) I felt as though I could have read so much more about each place, and it ignited my yearning to travel, something I’d been quite sick of until I started reading. The book is insightful and inspiring, especially if you’re feeling philosophical. Personally I liked the book and like Elizabeth Gilbert as a writer, however I fit into the readership this book is aimed at. Would I recommend it to my 18-year-old male cousin who just started a carpentry apprenticeship? No. Would I recommend it to his 20-year-old sister who is interested in travelling soon? Yes.

Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir. It isn’t a guidebook, a self-help book or yoga-for-dummies. It is the story of what one woman did when she realised her life was in crisis, and how she found her way out of it and back to a place where she could love again. Sure, she may have had the money (only because she got a book deal out of her planned trip) and other means to get herself there, but who are we to judge how this woman changed her life? And who are we to judge those who take her story for what it is and enjoy it? Oh yes, she’s so bourgeois, taking a trip around the globe to fix her upper class problems. Give me a break. If I were in her shoes, depressed and recently divorced I would do whatever the heck makes me happy again, whether that be growing my own veggies, working my way through a Morrocan cooking book or, perhaps, flying half way around the world and learning to meditate like a boss.

Taken for what it is, Eat, Pray, Love is clever, insightful and invigorating to read. Italy is so delicious and extravagant, India is so thought provoking and inspiring, Bali is so hopeful and blissful. Each one has something new to offer, and each chapter brings a fresh new idea. You might as well give it a try, millions of fans can’t be too wrong, can they?

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