The millions of fans who were whisked off their feet by Elizabeth Gilbert’s whirlwind travels in “Eat, Pray, Love” might initially be disappointed by Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Gilbert’s newest nonfiction work. While the former took readers on a tour of the world, the latter takes them on a journey through Gilbert’s thoughts.
But despite the dramatic difference in structure and the accompanying pace this new form creates, “Committed” stands on its own two feet.
The book opens with Gilbert and her boyfriend, Felipe, whom readers of “Eat, Pray, Love” may remember meeting at the end of that book. Traveling the globe “like witnesses in some odd international protection program,” the two also spend time at their US home base when Felipe has a proper visa. Observers and participants to the destructive power of divorce and the messy complications it can reap, the lovebirds have promised each other devotion, but had made a pact never to marry.
Unfortunately for them, the universe has other plans. After flying into the United States, Felipe and Gilbert find themselves in an interrogation room being told they must ring the bells of holy matrimony if Felipe ever wants to enter the country again. So the couple hits the road, spending time in Southeast Asia while their immigration papers are prepared. Gilbert decides to learn as much as she can about her greatest fear: marriage.
As readers, we are the recipients of that knowledge. Gilbert spins a historical account of one of the most lasting institutions in the world, from the early Christians (who tried to abolish marriage and sex) to the Europe of Henry VIII (where divorce came back in vogue with “grand style”) to the Hmong people (who don’t seem to think much of their spouses at all). As the couple travels from country to country, the reader explores years of feminism and racism while learning about seagulls’ divorce rates and the warming habits of porcupines (seriously). This part of the book, while full of interesting tidbits, reads too slowly, and one is thankful when Gilbert’s witty asides steal the show.
Yes, there is wit! While I expected more laughs, perhaps, this book wasn’t without its humorous moments. For example, Gilbert compares the US government to a “stern, old-fashioned father,” happy marriages to “self-cleaning ovens,” and condenses Christianity’s early view of matrimony to “marriage = wife = sex = sin = impurity.” If only textbooks made it that simple! So even though the history portion drags, these cleverly crafted moments almost make up for it.
And the comedy continues. On the topic of sacrifice, Gilbert’s father muses that his wife is “much more upset about the 5 percent of his life that he won’t relinquish than he is about the 95 percent that she utterly dominates.” Gilbert humbly pokes fun at herself about the embarrassment of sending wedding announcements to her friends for the second time, asking herself, “Hadn’t they all seen this film already? One’s credibility does begin to tarnish after too much of this sort of thing.”
Gilbert also has moments of humility and wisdom, like when she wonders whether she’s been asking too much of marriage, and suggests, “Maybe the only difference between first marriage and second marriage is that the second time at least you know you are gambling.” But Gilbert’s comments sometimes miss the wise mark and land in preachy territory, as when she carefully instructs readers never to try and change their partners. How many times have we heard that advice before? These instances stand out like a sore thumb, but are luckily few and far between.
The “Eat, Pray, Love” style isn’t completely missing. Throughout the book, there are fast-paced, engaging gems: We spend a lively night with Keo, an ambitious Laotian entrepreneur living in a 15-square-foot home; Gilbert’s mother and grandmother have rich histories that pull us in; the recounting of a disastrous Cambodia trip commands our full attention. These stories tie us into the day-to-day events that Gilbert is actually living through – holed up in hotel rooms around the globe, spending her days discussing prenups, waiting for the American government to make a decision, and soaking up new countries. These active spots, though, are a mere sideshow to the rest of the book. “Committed” is by and large a “tell,” not “show,” kind of read.
Unfortunately, the story falls a little flat toward the end. After more than 250 pages of research, examples, anecdotes, and distress, our heroine finally seems to accept marriage after reading an account that she says maybe isn’t “entirely historically accurate.” The surprising carelessness with which she finally yields to her dreaded fear almost makes the whole journey seem a bit fabricated. A reader may feel rather swindled, as if taken on a bit of a ride, even pickpocketed, by a good friend. Throughout most of the book, Gilbert works hard at building up a rapport of trust with her readers. And it’s a good thing – otherwise the ending could cause her to lose her audience.
But despite its faults, “Committed” remains an incredibly thorough, introspective, and ultimately engaging examination into one of life’s most permeating, sought-after social constructs. And this fact alone makes it a book that begs to be read.
Kate Vander Wiede is a freelance writer in Boston.