I am finally getting around to reading this book, after what seems like a gazillion people recommending it to me, often people I barely know–my Pilates instructor, strangers at a bookstore. Last week I was in Prague at The Globe, an English bookstore, looking at the book once again and thinking this exact thing–what is it about a book that compels total strangers to recommend it to you?–when the woman at the counter saw me pick it up. “Oh, you HAVE to read that book! Have you?” she yelled from across the room. “And we also have the original cover, better than the Julia Roberts cover. Most people want that one… here it is.”
Julia Roberts is playing the author and main character in the new film based on the book, and I’m guessing it’s finally time to read it before the story goes totally Hollywood. I admit one of the main reasons I avoided it was because the content seemed goopy New Agey; personally, the idea of escaping to India in search of gurus and healing from life’s traumas seems so, oh, predictable. At the same time, I’m curious about the writing. Despite my huge list of to-read fiction accumulating on my bookshelves, the last few years I’ve found the most pleasure in memoirs and non-fiction writing.
So far, I dig it–it’s easy to read, and I like especially the witty parts about nationality. She writes insightfully about the obsessiveness with which Americans produce vs. the “good life” and pleasure-seeking of the Italians. A stereotype, but true. I laughed out loud when she talked about how American advertising caters to our guilt over pleasure (“You DESERVE a break today!”) and how even in vacation we are worried if we aren’t accomplishing relaxation enough. Oh my, I’m guilty as charged.
Most memoirs are comprised of jaunty narratives, chronological or not, of the author’s life, which almost always set off after a major life-traumatizing event. Like death of parents, loss of child, or in the case of Elizabeth Gilbert, a painful divorce. The thing I like about memoirs is they require, for a writer, an absolutely brutal willingness to put your personal life in public–you have to kill yourself at every stage of writing. So of course memoir writers are often incredibly self-deprecating and people love that–it makes everyone feel better about their own silly lives.
Another thing about memoirs is that they are almost always about transformation. Author experiences crisis, goes out into the world to encounter something wholly other usually via some kind of forced nomadism, in order to find themselves. It’s called pilgrimage, and there is a universal appeal about a pilgrim’s kind of transformation. My favorite memoirs, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers), The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton), and Without a Map (Meredith Hall) all made me cry at some point in their stories. Thomas Merton later said he was embarrassed by his autobiography, but when I read it at 28 (almost the same age he wrote it), it moved me to radically change my life. I half-flirted with a monastic calling because of it. Two years of self-imposed non-dating and graduate school were good enough.
And now I find myself less at the stage of life where I need a radical change, I still enjoy the story of a good emotional and spiritual pilgrimage. I’ve moved around, globally. I found the love of my life. I know there will be changes here and there, but nothing, I hope, looming ahead like the spiritual crises often experienced by these authors. Speaking of which, Eat Pray Love capitalizes on the trend toward earlier and earlier mid-life crises. Gen-xers seemed to experience it closer to their 30s than 50s. Or maybe it’s that we are coming of age later. I can’t decide. Many of my friends got married in their 30s, and frighteningly many of them have gotten divorced before 40. We are so afraid of institutions that the minute we find ourselves rooting in one, the authenticity of our entire existence becomes a dire life-or-death situation. While on the one hand it’s nice to know we stay spiritually malleable later into life, on the other hand it’s a bit scary to read just how un-sure-footed we are.
Either way, every time I start reading a memoir, it makes me want to write one. It’s the sureness of the writing, the gutsiness of just going ahead and making yourself the story, that draws me in.