Thursday, March 25, 2010

Committed (Elizabeth Gilbert)

Anyone remember a little book called Eat, Pray, Love? Elizabeth Gilbert sure does. Eat, Pray, Love wasn't her first book, but it is, by far, her most successful book to date. So successful in fact that the task of following it with a new book was daunting. When your last book becomes a best-seller, with an audience of millions, how do you write the next and have it appeal to all those same readers? Gilbert explains what became her intended audience for Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage: twenty-seven women, ranging from her grandmother to her stepdaughter, and friends in between. But even more so, Gilbert wrote this book for herself, to work through her understanding of marriage. Because, upon returning from a trip abroad, Gilbert's partner in life, Felipe, a non-U.S. citizen, got stopped by Homeland Security, questioned for hours, and then sent to jail before being deported. (Felipe was not in the United States illegally, but his previous visas and time in the country showed a clear pattern of his relationship with Gilbert, and this was at an especially tedious time with foreigners in the United States.) Before being sent to jail, Gilbert was able to briefly talk to Felipe and make plans. The officer who had been questioning Felipe told them clearly what they needed to do: get married.

Most people would not have reacted the way Gilbert and her partner did. They were heartbroken with the news. Both previously divorced, both had no intentions of ever getting married again, but this is what they would have to do to be together. And so during a long exile from the United States, a forced one for Felipe while the paperwork/proceedings took place to allow his re-entry into the country, Gilbert thought a lot about marriage, throughout all of history, and her own familial history.

I started to worry near the beginning of the book, when Gilbert steps out of the narrative of her own life and into a long exposition on the history of marriage, quite similar to a book for which I found the subject compelling but never made it through. I was so worried that the rest of the book was going to be like this (I have a hard time staying interested in that kind of writing), that Committed stayed on a table, closed, for almost a week before I decided to power through that section and see what lay ahead. (Adding further incentive were two new library books, one with a two-week due date. Two weeks! That's like a one-day movie rental for someone with a toddler!)

I'm glad I stayed with it because the book turned out to be a thoughtful exploration of marriage woven into Gilbert's life: narratives of wedding ceremonies among the Hmong in Laos, the secret yearnings of teenage Buddhist monks, the benefits of marriage for men that far outweigh those for women, how divorce plays into marriage and exists in virtually every culture (and even among seagulls!). I'm not sure how this book will do in comparison with Eat, Pray, Love, but it feels like an honest and personal follow-up to it.

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