A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw The Bounty Hunter for date night (verdict: blah. The movie, that is. Not date night.). First, however, among the previews was a trailer for this summer’s Julia Roberts vehicle, Eat, Pray, Love, which looked interesting. I saw that it was based on a book, and put it on my hold list at the library.
Verdict on this one: enjoyable, but don’t take it too seriously, if only because the author doesn’t. The book opens as a standard confessional/tear-jerker/aren’t-you-impressed-by-my-suffering memoir, but she at least has the decency to write in a style so tongue-in-cheek, so self-effacing, that we realize this is just setting the stage for something better; author Elizabeth Gilbert knows how cloying these stories have become, and neatly sidesteps the land mine with some winsome humor. Though her need to crack funny permeates the book, nowhere is it as strong, or as needed, as in this potentially-dark opening.
Once that is out of the way, though, and we know why she felt compelled to go off on a journey, the fun begins. And it is fun: Gilbert is no tour guide showing the group what’s on our left or gently chiding us to keep back from the velvet ropes; rather, she’s the screwball friend we brought along on the trip for kicks and giggles, and who is untiring in fulfilling her expected task. Like any good travel memoir, she shows more of people than of history and geography, though it all factors into an equation quite pleasantly balanced.
Gilbert had decided to spend a year abroad: four months enjoying pleasure in Italy (though she resolved to stay celibate), four months attending to spiritual devotion in India, and four months seeking a way to integrate the two in proper proportion in real life in Indonesia. She doesn’t skimp on local flavor, and the armchair globetrotter will find plenty to savor, but the best treat in this buffet is Gilbert herself. She can be serious (not somber, never drab, but mature) when it suits her narrative, and when she does, we get to see our flibbertigibbet companion late into the night, when everyone else at our party has gone to sleep and defenses are down. Here she shines, too, as she muses on assorted things, not ponderously, but in the vein of someone humbled by her own honestly imperfect nature.
Does the story end with a neat epiphany, a summary of just how one masters pleasure and devotion in the hurried, harried world we inhabit? No, and while I was mildly disappointed at first, I see now that this was right: no coiffed masks here, not after all the simple, childlike joy of the preceding pages. Gilbert lets her experience stand as it is, warts and all, and as such, by pretending to no special dispensation, she lets us relax and find more than a little of life’s beauty with her.
It’s a trip well worth taking, if you like light, natural substance, well coated in whimsy. I hope the movie does it justice.
Final Grade: B