I guess most of the female population of America and much of the world has read Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love. It is Gilbert's memoir of her failed relationships and of her decision to travel in order to heal her resulting depression and sadness and to seek spiritual awareness.
The book might be summed up briefly, and unkindly, as "Rich American divorcee spends a year weeping through three countries beginning with the letter 'I' while searching for God." It is prophetic that the three countries she decides to visit on her quest all begin with the letter "I" - namely, Italy, India and Indonesia - because that seems to be where all her problems and unhappiness begin as well. I, I, I.
I (there's that letter again) found it hard to warm up to Gilbert at first, mostly because I've known so many women in her situation who were not able to take themselves off to exotic places in order to confront their demons with the help of a guru. They had to stand and fight their demons on their home turf, often with children hanging onto them and impeding their efforts to defend themselves. But, halfway through Italy, I decided that I shouldn't hold Gilbert's wealth against her. Just because she was financially able to spend a year traveling around the world did not make her pain and depression any less real or any less deserving of sympathy. And it didn't make her struggles to overcome her problems and find peace in her life any less heartrending.
Gilbert's plan was to spend four months in each country. Her first stop was Italy, which was to be devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. Mostly eating. She gained 23 pounds there in four months. Her next four month period was spent in an ashram in India, seeking the spiritual and learning how to pray. The last four months, which I am in the middle of in my reading, were spent on the island of Bali in Indonesia, where she hopes to learn to balance physical pleasure and the spiritual. Will she manage it? Since Julia Roberts is playing her in the movie that comes out tomorrow, I'm hazarding a guess that the answer is yes.
It's easy to understand why this book strikes a chord with women. Divorce is a common fact of life in modern society and failed romantic relationships have been a given of humankind since we swung down from the trees and learned to stand upright. Even for women who haven't experienced divorce, we have all experienced failures in our lives, failures that make us sad and sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. The lucky among us, like Gilbert, are able to come to terms with those feelings and learn that, in the end, we are responsible for our own happiness. We make our own heaven or hell right here on earth.
Whether we travel the world to learn that or gain the epiphany in our own backyard, the lesson is no less real or liberating.