In her new memoir, Elizabeth Gilbert gets married—whether she likes it or not.Late one cold November night, in the suburbs of New York, a thirty-one-year-old blonde was sobbing on her bathroom floor. She didn’t want to be married anymore, she realized: “I was trying so hard not to know this, but the truth kept insisting itself to me.” She had accomplished a great deal, domestically speaking—she had answered the questions of where to live and with whom. Unfortunately, she had succeeded at the wrong life: “I don’t want to be married anymore. I don’t want to live in this big house. I don’t want to have a baby.” Elizabeth Gilbert recounted this crisis toward the beginning of her monstrously successful 2006 memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love.” In that bathroom, in that marriage, Gilbert was a heroine out of Ibsen, or possibly Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Marriage, in “Eat, Pray, Love,” is a prison, destined to derange its female inmates. But Gilbert’s memoir is a cultural artifact of the new millennium, not the late nineteenth century. The heroine wanted to roam free, and so she did.
After her divorce, Gilbert travelled across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Wanderlust is at the core of her nature. She has compared herself to “a fussy baby who can fall asleep only in a moving car.” Before Gilbert wrote her best-seller, she had already published “Pilgrims,” a short-story collection about drifters and pioneers, and “The Last American Man,” a biography of the contemporary naturalist Eustace Conway, who abandoned a comfortable suburban life to wear animal skins in the wilds of Appalachia, where he used a cave as his office. Gilbert has always been interested in restless characters seeking extraordinary experiences, and eventually she became one herself.
First came despair. Gilbert was suicidal after her marriage ended, sitting, at one point, with kitchen knife in hand, contemplating her wrists. She writes that she “became a student of my own depressed experience.” Research has long been Gilbert’s preferred coping mechanism. When she was still married and trying to decide whether to have children, she “spent two frantic years interviewing every woman I could—married, single, childless, artistic, archetypically maternal,” in an attempt to divine her own optimal path. She even does this with problems that don’t seem particularly problematic: in Italy, she set herself the challenge of learning how pleasure is “most efficiently maximized,” studying her subject “like a homework assignment.” (She had other high-class difficulties to ponder during the yearlong journey that provided the source material for “Eat, Pray, Love.” “Here’s what’s strange,” she observes at one point. “I haven’t seemed to be able to do any yoga since getting to Rome.”)