by Isabella David McCaffrey
It’s been ten years since Eat Pray Love was published, and I can no longer understand now why I briefly liked it then. A decade is a long time, but not so long that I can’t still recognize the person I was in old journal entries and rough drafts of stories I began and never completed.
Some of my mysterious appreciation was clearly, simply in the timing.
When I happened upon the battered copy left behind by my husband’s ex-wife, I’d also just been through my own semi-divorce from my domestic partner. That was 2009, actually; divorce was in the air and dominated Gilbert’s narrative. Although my husband’s ex left no marginalia, maybe I thought pages she’d dog-eared might reveal damning components of her character. As far as dissecting human nature goes, my husband is of the school of good person/ bad person. I wanted to know why he’d married her, and all he could say, like she was some sort of human equivalent to Mount Everest, was, “She was there.” Desperate to learn more, I battened upon Eat, Pray, Love as if it alone contained the lost initiation rites to the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries.
At that point in my life, my own recent breakup was the second-worst thing that had happened to me, the first being my parents’ epic alimony battle. The latter were childish pains, though, issues that no longer plagued my adulthood with its adult-size problems. Still, maybe that, too, accounts for why I sympathized with what strikes me today as Gilbert’s incredibly whiny, unceasing plaints over her own pretty much consequence-free divorce. Or, Wah: I Got a Divorce, Ate a Lot of Pasta, Chilled at an Ashram, and Beach-Bummed in Bali and Got Paid To Do It.
Cry me a deep, effing river of consciousness, Gilbert.
It didn’t take me ten years to realize my mistake, though it did take those years and another book—Between the World and Me or the book poised to knock Knausgaard’s My Struggle off the New York literatti’s highest honors pedestal—to help me understand why I’d made the mistake. Soon after I finished EPL, I happened to attend a party in New York filled with Harvard men—a group my husband had fallen in with after attending law school with one of their cronies.
Harvard guys in general were not my favorite type when I lived in New York. Although Crimson men weren’t the worst snobs on the spectrum, they were such a closed group that it took five years for one of them to say anything to me beyond, “Can you take my picture please?” And I am not making that up. The best part is the guy-who-needs-a-selfie-stick-stat was surprised to learn I didn’t care for him.
So when one of the tight-lipped patricians actually spoke to me at the party, asking me what I’d been reading lately, I did not mention the junky fashion magazines I’d been gorging on by the dozen down in McNally-Jackson’s, the bookstore we were living above on Mulberry, essentially my living room for two glorious years of my life and probably why, after several false starts, I finally became a writer. Instead, I thought for a moment and dropped a bomb.
“Eat Pray Love. I really liked it.”
If I’d hauled back my head to hock a loogie in his beer, my husband’s friend, who is not a lawyer, but a Brooklyn-based writer, a kind of Richard Yates crossed with a Jon Krakauer, could not have looked more repulsed.
In fact, Yates/Krakauer wouldn’t even make eye contact with me again for the rest of the party, and this was awkward because he was squeezed in beside me at our small table. I burned with that special class-consciousness brand of shame Curtis Sittenfeld taps into in Prep and Jessica Knoll channels to lethal extremes in Luckiest Girl Alive. I had faux-stepped with a vengeance over some snooty social cliff, but I didn’t quite understand how or why.
Then I went to see the movie.
That’s when I began to understand.
Let me preface my micro-review of the film this way: Eat Pray Love is the only movie I’ve ever walked out of in Manhattan, a place where movies are more expensive than lunch. That is to say, this Manhattan viewer put up with quite a lot when she’d given up lunch to see a movie—did I mention I was a dirt-poor artist in those days, making my interactions with that Harvard crew of hyper-over-achievers even more awkward? By the time Julia Roberts’ own privileged ass finished eating, praying, and finally got to the “love” part of the story, I no longer cared whether love conquered all but sincerely wished, as they soaked in the turquoise sea saying awful things, that a shark would eat, digest, and excrete Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem.
By the time Julia Roberts’ own privileged ass finished eating, praying, and finally got to the “love” part of the story, I no longer cared whether love conquered all but sincerely wished, as they soaked in the turquoise sea saying awful things, that a shark would eat, digest, and excrete Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem.
The book’s always supposed to be better than the movie, I thought. I didn’t really think about the book or movie again until another strange thing happened.
As 2016 arrived, I found myself with two kids, living in Philly far from the madding Harvard crowd, when I stumbled upon a dollar copy of EPL. This was soon after reading that Eat Pray Love, published in 2006 with a modest first run of only 30,000 copies, was about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. That wasn’t the strange thing: we all know a heck of a lot more copies were published after Oprah touted the book on her show. The strange thing happened much later, well after I picked up the dollar copy, planning to reread it and to see if it was as bad as the movie had started to make me think it was.
It seemed like an okay investment of a dollar, if a strange investment of my time. Mostly, I wanted to reread the book, because I wanted to understand why I hadn’t picked up on its suspect quality. Was there a glitch in my soul? My confusion was compounded in light of the fact that I’ve really liked other things Elizabeth Gilbert has written. Her short stories, written before she was famous, are solid. I love love love “The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick” first published in The Paris Review, and I stand by that. Her book on creativity, Big Magic, is good and generous stuff, filled with incredible writing advice. So why did EPL have such a shoddy rep? It was a true conundrum, but I promptly forgot about the whole thing, because I have two small children, and that’s what happens to mysteries when you throw in a dash of chaos.
A few weeks later, I went to look for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I noticed how uneasily it was lying below Eat Pray Love.
That’s when things got strange.
As anyone who follows me on Instagram knows, I have a special affinity for old junk, particularly books, and I might be anthropomorphizing here, but I could almost hear Coates’ book, which is not old or junky, but the new, hot, intellectual property on the block, begging me to move it elsewhere.
What does my subconscious know that I don’t? I wondered, and made a resolution. I decided to read both memoirs in conjunction and let my feelings write this very piece.
I could essentially title this piece #allthefeels, because my emotions on the subject are myriad. My new awareness of a previously uncategorized genre, priv-lit, is paramount among them. Priv-lit is a much more apt term than chick-lit, because it’s meant to be openly demeaning and justifiably so, whereas chick-lit is demeaning, because it disparages women’s voices addressing what are considered traditionally womanly things—the reason I’d originally assigned to macho Harvard guy’s disdain of my reading taste.
Priv-lit is a very different animal. It isn’t a criticism of women’s voices per se; it’s an identification of rich, whiny voices. Let’s continue dissecting my decade-in-the-making satori here: if you Google, “Eat Pray Love terrible,” some pretty amusing stuff comes up, mostly about the film. (Full disclosure: I had a lot more fun reading those blogs than rereading the book.)
“What’s the worst foreign journey you’ve experienced?” The Daily Mail asks. “Mine is this movie.”
While I can now separate the book from the film, I can also state Eat Pray Love is really bad, and the fact that I can finally articulate why, without any prodding from snooty Harvard grads, is the reason why more people need to read Ta-Nehisi Coates, even if Between the World and Me is difficult and painful instead of cutesy and light.
Where Coates lays out his truth in no uncertain terms, so much so that, in reading his memoir/ long essay/ letter to his son, the fire of his plainly-stated passion and pain is contagious to the reader, Gilbert starts off from a very questionable premise: she is going to share her journey with us but she is NOT going to share why she undertook it in the first place.
“The many reasons I didn’t want to be this man’s wife anymore are too personal and too sad to share here,” Gilbert prevaricates in Chapter 2. Maybe I glossed over that on the first read, because her chatty voice so engaged me and chasing the ghost of my husband’s ex so enthralled me. In 2016, after four years of marriage, I thought to myself, “Sure, sugarpants.”
Everything after her declarative becomes questionable at best. Since I have never in the history of the world heard of a woman who doesn’t want to complain about why her man did her wrong, I (and a huge number of the 1 and 2-star reviewers on Amazon) are all left to surmise from experience: she cheated on her husband with the new boyfriend, which would explain why that relationship was so fraught and doomed and also why her divorce was so drawn-out and agonizing.
And maybe we’re wrong or cynical, but good writers don’t cloak their humanity in aphorisms; they put the naked soul trembling on the page, so the reader’s soul recognizes itself in all its fragility and strength.
Ostensibly EPL is a book about the soul, but, instead, we get a person who spends an entire book telling us about how much she loves herself and how much the world loves her, and that is a direct quote. Gilbert, or her internal narrator, is not a person who wants to think anything bad about herself, and that is a delusional egoism of CEOs and other power-players. Of course Oprah liked the book.
In contrast, Coates’ biggest epiphany rings with humility and wisdom, not self-indulgent pasta-slurping.
“Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent … Now the questions began burning in me.”
Through passages filled with raw, rhapsodic prose, Coates transmits that fire to his readers. His voice is not chatty, breezy, and easy. It is impassioned.
Between the World and Me is a different book, and perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two works in this way, but I am making a case that Gilbert’s book is bad, and it can only be bad in contrast to the good.
And Coates is good. He is damn good. After I finished the book, I wanted to weep and write and shout at the world. Whereas, Gilbert made me want to slurp pasta and have sex with strangers and go to India and ignore the Indians, because my own personal journey was just so damned important. If Gilbert had written EPL in 2016, she would have Instagrammed the shit out of it with one of those terrible, #authentic travelogue accounts that Socality Barbie mocks to such great (and hilarious) effect.
Maybe the real crux of the issue is that young people should not be allowed write memoirs, and although Elizabeth Gilbert professed to feeling ancient after a bad divorce, she was only 34 or maybe 35 when she wrote this account. In New York, people tend not to have kids and stay kids themselves, quite frequently, up until their 40s; in that world, a bad break-up really can seem like the worst thing ever, but in the light of real, global, life and death struggles, it pales.
For example, Coates’ anguish is derived from his belief that nothing he says will protect the son he’s addressing from having his precious blood spilled like “bum wine on the street” for no other reason than the color of his skin. In one particularly harrowing passage, he recounts how his toddler son was shoved out of the way on a subway platform and how he was almost arrested for defending his small child. Meanwhile, Gilbert’s struggles include going up a pants size after overeating in Rome, and, as she girlishly divulges, “boys.”
I once travelled the world to find myself, as well. I was 18. I’d been secretly stashing babysitting money since I was 12, then worked a summer in New York as a temp to save some more. Afterwards, I worked my way around the Middle East, cleaning toilets, working in fields, waiting tables, and washing dishes.
All that’s to say: I had no comfortable distance from the things I saw in the Middle East, and I don’t think it’s an accident I came to the same conclusion arrived at by Coates: race is a fiction. It’s a story we tell ourselves to make our plunder easier. The Israeli and the Arab are interchangeable for the most part: dark-haired, dark-eyed with guttural speech that sounds strange when coming from the soft babyish lips of their children. In North Africa, there are blue-eyed, blond Arabs, and in Israel, Jews with skin darker than anything we’d call white in America.
Gilbert is welcome to her easier, cushier journey, of course, but her unquestioning belief in her own importance, in the importance of tasting pasta and cavorting on Balinese beaches never wavers, is never shaken. The subject is not necessarily the problem: lack of perspective is the flaw of the book.
Gilbert is welcome to her easier, cushier journey, of course, but her unquestioning belief in her own importance, in the importance of tasting pasta and cavorting on Balinese beaches never wavers, is never shaken.
Coates’ book is better for several reasons, but mostly because, at its core, it is the diamond shine of the unflawed brilliance of one person’s unvarnished truth. Coates’ book is about many things, but it is mostly about how false this Dream is—a Dream Gilbert so thoroughly inhabits she cannot see its borders. She never drifts from the land of Dreams; dreaming better Dreams has become her shtick, her bread and butter, as she eternally haunts TED talks, urging others to Dream more.
Wake up, Coates urges us instead.
“And this [technological] revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky.”
And what he says is what every great writer has ever said.
Wake up and begin to struggle.
Struggle to be a mensch, not a #soauthentic eater of filet mignon.
Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, it’s eating up the planet.
The Dream is killing us all.