Eat Pray Love Book Club Discussion: Part 5

Katelyn, I took away much the same idea you did from Eat, Pray, Love: that perhaps our highest selfishness is the belief that without us, everything would fall apart. We are suspicious of her "selfish" decision to essentially run away from her everyday life in New York City and focus on herself and her relationships with herself, God, and others in Italy, India, and Indonesia. My initial reactions to the book were more negative than positive—for many of the reasons you mentioned, Katelyn—but when I mentioned my objections to a friend who had really enjoyed the book, she asked why I would consider seeking God to be a self-centered pursuit. Great question.

The things that bothered me most about Gilbert's book, I realized, are the very same things that tend to bother me most about myself. I too have a tendency to indulge in a good bit of a "navel-gazing," and have spent many, many hours dissecting my life, my problems, and my feelings about them, in journals, in solitary thought, and in conversations with friends. In fact, I spent a few months in London and Italy in the immediate aftermath of a pretty difficult emotional situation doing little but this very thing. Was I selfish then, to spend so much time "working on myself" and restoring emotional and, more importantly, spiritual, order and health to my life?

I went to see the movie, Eat Pray Love, this weekend interested in how it would handle this general theme. While the book could spend pages and pages in Gilbert's mind, a direct movie translation of her prose would bore viewers to tears. So I went with pretty low expectations—even beyond my thematic concerns, the movie has been receiving reviews that range from mediocre to downright bad (it currently has a 39 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Mostly, I was looking forward to the opportunity to escape into beautiful, exotic locations, if only for a few hours—the travel narrative providing the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me. I was also curious, of course, to see just how deep the movie would be willing to delve into the spiritual aspect of Gilbert's memoir. Turns out the answer is, not very deep. The movie trades in the spiritual revelations of the book for a psychology lite version of soul searching—Julia Robert's Liz seeks primarily to deal with her guilt over leaving her marriage, and to open herself up to love again. Gone are her struggles to learn focus and commitment, to find meaning in ritual, replaced with a few images of Roberts in tortured om poses, struggling to focus on spiritual matters. What those spiritual matters are, the viewer never learns. It's all boiled down to her attempt to get over her guilt and past the pain and into a restored, whole version of herself.

The movie Gilbert seems far less focused on herself and far more focused on the people around her. In each place she quickly develops a community, always made up of a combination of locals, expatriates, and fellow travelers, and it is these relationships that bring her through the pain of her string of failed relationships and the guilt of her painful, messy divorce. In the book, many of these characters acted as accessories to her travels, adding local color to each place and providing a sounding board for Gilbert's internal meanderings, but in the movie it truly is her love for these people that transforms her life.

While at the ashram in India, Liz struggles to get through the Gurugita, a morning chant made up of 182 Sanskrit verses. In the book, she decides to dedicate each verse to her 8-year-old nephew, using her love for him as a starting point or model for the type of spiritual devotion and love she wants to embody. In the movie, she dedicates her Gurugita to Tulsi, a 17-year-old Indian girl being forced into an arranged marriage. It really is a touching scene when she tells the girl, who is struggling to get through her wedding day, that she has been dedicating her prayers to the couple's happiness. This scene is mirrored by moments in both Italy (a Thanksgiving table offering) and Indonesia (a rallying of friends across the globe that provides a home for a dispossessed woman and her child). It is these moments that offer the possibility of real change as we see how both people have changed each other's lives. It's a give-and-take, not merely the "take" if often reads as in the book.

The lack of spiritual content in the movie actually ended up being a good thing, in my opinion. It traded the convoluted pseudo-Hindu mish-mash of the book for a very grounded look at community and the role it plays in restoration. It did well in pushing to the background her personal spiritual quest, because, while I do not believe that such an undertaking is a selfish thing, it can easily come across that way, and did to many readers.

Did anyone else have similar (or dissimilar) feelings about the movie? How about the implications of her year-long travels—selfish? Or not? What makes a spiritual quest selfish or unselfish?

Editors note: This is the final installment of the Eat Pray Love Book Club Discussion, which began last week. Thanks for engaging with the ideas behind the book, and feel free to weigh in on whether you'd like to see another book club in the future and if so, what books you would like to read.