Despite the seeming breach between her explorations of the masculine for Esquire and GQ and her two most recent, hypergabby love-lost-and-found memoirs, Elizabeth Gilbert has always written about what a friend of mine calls "white people's problems"—queasy staring at the abyss of self—issues that occur when First Worlders ask themselves, "Am I happy enough?" But unlike, say, Woody Allen, Gilbert sees little humor in the notion that, while exploring one's navel, one inevitably discovers a knot where the doctor has tied the darn thing off. Though her style is light and personable, she takes the enterprise very, very seriously, and intends to reach its bottom in full public view.
Her insanely popular 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love was a sort of My Super Sweet 16 for the middlebrow set, sensuous entitlement tempered by seething guilt and self-flagellation: an all-expenses-paid fantasy trip through Italy, India and Indonesia to find pleasure and balance after a painful divorce in which she left her husband for a much younger thespian—in the book, she writes unironically about the catastrophe of losing her lover so soon after her marriage. As in reality TV, Gilbert left the reader only two options: total escapist identification, or an irritated gathering of ammunition against an author who seemed to lack all perspective. I fell into the latter category, but millions of others made Eat, Pray into a clarion blare of discontentment for American women who'd gotten it all and weren't sure they wanted it anymore.
Gilbert's newest, Committed (Viking, 285 pages, $26.95), is a rambling postscript to Eat, Pray, Love in which immigration authorities force her to either marry or forget Felipe, the Brazilian-Australian she'd met in Indonesia. While this seems a good spur for her to examine her relationship with Felipe, it instead inspires her to assess the institution of marriage itself, from its beginnings as a way to amass familial power to its utility in imprisoning women. She cites, for example, the oft-quoted statistic that while marriage seems to lengthen the life of men, it shortens the life of women.
Every abstract notion of marriage she uncovers, in fact, militates against it (including her and Felipe's own unhappy histories), which leads to an odd climax and denouement in which she and Felipe are finally allowed to marry and she declares herself deliriously happy. I would have been more interested to see what became of a marriage that had arisen despite such objections (and I suspect the world will not have long to wait). For now, however, this slight book drifts by in a fog of verbose hand-wringing but precious little else.
Elizabeth Gilbert will appear at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9234. Monday, Jan. 25. 7 pm. $27 admission includes book.