Talk, Research, Marry
When Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert's self-absorbed and often humorous memoir, hit bookshelves in 2006, many readers devoured her tale of nasty divorce, exotic travels, new romance, and search for spiritual meaning. The book spent 57 weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and you couldn't hop on an airplane or sit in a coffee shop without seeing a copy in someone's hands. A film, starring Julia Roberts, is on the way. By the closing pages of the book, Gilbert had found a new man to love and a sense of the transcendent. She swore, however, that she would never remarry.
Like all of us who swear that we will never do something—and then sheepishly retract it—Gilbert has lived to eat her words. In her second and more pragmatic memoir, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (Viking) [4 stars], Gilbert bumps up against the harsh reality of American visas. If she wants her expatriate Brazilian gem trader, "Felipe" (the name he is given in the book), to continue living with her in the United States, marriage is her only option.
As Gilbert tells it, tying the knot again is a difficult decision. After six years of marriage, her divorce had left her with little taste for wedlock and plenty of fear about trying it again. Felipe, 17 years her senior, is also the survivor of an unpleasant divorce. Together, "we'd been so badly gutted by our experiences that the very idea of legal marriage—with anyone, even with such nice people as each other—filled us with a heavy sense of dread," she writes.
Gilbert talks with friends, family, and individuals from all over the world about marriage, seemingly to bolster her confidence and dispel her fears. These discussions form the backbone of the book. What Gilbert discovers is that marriage means different things to different people and in different cultures: emotionally, socially, historically, and religiously. People also bring contrasting expectations to matrimony. Her idea of marital bliss, she discovers, might not be someone else's.
She talks to Hmong women in a Vietnamese village who, she writes, do not put marriage at the center of their "emotional biography." In contrast, she notes, in the industrialized West the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality.
Closer to home, she reflects on a discussion with a Mr. Webster, a Connecticut dairy farmer whose marriage seemed solely commonsensical ("Arthur was soon going to be taking over the family farm and therefore he needed a wife"). Did that mean pragmatism negated love? Well, maybe not, as Mr. Webster cared for his wife at home for almost a decade after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she observes.
From conversations like these, Gilbert draws conclusions. "What Mr. Webster and the Hmong people perhaps have in common is a notion that the emotional place where a marriage begins is not nearly as important as the emotional place where a marriage finds itself toward the end, after many years of partnership." Moreover, she says, they would likely agree that there isn't one person who will make your life magically complete but that there are a number of people with whom you could seal a respectful bond. "Then you could live and work alongside that person for years," Gilbert writes, "with the hope that tenderness and affection would be the gradual outcome of your union."