Novel Readings

Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed

After the fun I had reading Eat, Pray, Love,* I was a bit disappointed in Committed, which is not nearly as funny and also not nearly as personal. I was curious to find out about Gilbert’s own experience of marriage, but instead Committed is mostly a meditation on marriage in general. As such, it is still interesting and sometimes surprising, but it struck me as sitting uneasily between genres: for a really thorough analysis of the historical, political, economic, and social aspects of marriage, you’d need to go to the scholarly sources Gilbert consulted and often refers to in her own commentary, but she brings nothing in particular of her own to their work, while in the context of the broader investigation Committed purports to be, her anecdotes about friends and family feel, well, anecdotal. I gave her a pass on the weaknesses of Eat, Pray, Love (at my book club meeting recently, a couple of my friends  expressed vague surprise that I went so “easy” on it–not that either of them showed up in the comments on the post to specify any particular disagreements! lurkers!) but even though I read Committed with genuine interest, in the end I thought Gilbert had set herself a harder task, one with less personal prequisites, and her bottom line–which in both books is something like “this is just who I am and what I think, so don’t take it too seriously”–didn’t suit as well. OK, so she eventually finds a theory of marriage that reassures her, that enables the choice she wants to make anyway. That’s not a particularly compelling general result. It probably didn’t help Gilbert that I came to her book right after finishing Testament of Youth, either. There are actually some strong similarities in the reservations Brittain and Gilbert both have about entering into an institution they see as fraught with hazards for women in general and for themselves in particular, accustomed as they both are to independence. But Brittain comes across as someone who persistently wrestles with and articulates principles for her life: she has a moral and intellectual seriousness that I don’t find in Gilbert, who continues to seem a little flighty and solipsistic to me.

Still, accepting Committed as something less substantial than a genuinely original treatise on modern marriage, more a popularization of the body of scholarship and the record of experience that’s available, it did manage to be engaging and thought-provoking. It covers a lot of ground, not all of it familiar, and Gilbert is a pleasantly fluent writer. As I said about Eat, Pray, Love, it’s the kind of book that inevitably acts as a mirror, and I found myself reflecting plenty, as I read along, on my own expectations of marriage and family life, on the models I had around me growing up and have around me now. These are not, however, the kinds of reflections I feel comfortable making explicit here. The people in my own life have not made the knowing sacrifice of their privacy that Felipe made when he married Liz, after all.

*I watched the film version of Eat, Pray, Love last night, just by the way, and found it quite dull compared to the book. It’s not the events, after all, that are particularly interesting–it’s Gilbert’s telling of them, and reflections on them. Without her voice, it all seemed flat. Nice scenery, though. Did anyone else find the whole “too tight jeans” sequence absurd? Both actresses look to be about size 4.