As she mentions in her responses to the FAQ on her website, Elizabeth Gilbert is aware that not everyone gets the opportunity to travel the world on a personal discovery (and recovery) mission paid for by a book advance, but as a reader, I’m glad she was able to.
At thirty, Liz faced the painful realization that the life she had, and was expected to have from that point on, wasn’t the life she wanted. What followed was an even more painful extrication from that life – a dragged-out divorce, a turbulent love affair, depression, psychotherapy – and a need to resolve all that pain. This book is the story of her year-long journey across the world to find her way to a healthier, happier, stronger self.
The book is divided into three parts, corresponding with Liz’s travels. Having begun to take Italian lessons in New York City, she decided to begin with four months in Italy, studying the language, absorbing the culture and the people, and “pursuing pleasure,” primarily in the form of food. The next phase of her journey is very different, as she lives in an ashram in India for another four months, “pursuing devotion” in yoga and meditation, according to the teachings of the guru with whom she began studying back in New York. The last part of her year is spent in Bali, Indonesia, bringing these two sides together and “pursuing balance” with no particular plan in mind.
Liz’s year of searching leads her to nearly everything she had hoped to find. She lets of go of the pain of her failed marriage, and reconciles her difficult subsequent relationship. She is spiritually stronger, and no longer depressed. She finds happiness and joy in her physical surroundings and new friends, and she begins learning how to love without losing herself.
I’d heard and read wonderful things about this book, but was a bit apprehensive about reading it myself – I had a feeling I would relate to much of it, and wasn’t sure how it might affect me. As it turns out, I loved nearly everything about it, even the parts that felt painfully like my own stories. While I’m less spiritually developed than Liz has sought to be, I’ve searched for some of the same things she has. I’ve been through the drawn-out breakup and the years of combating and succumbing to depression – her descriptions of endless crying jags anywhere and everywhere were unfortunately familiar. But while the path was different, her seeking – and eventually finding, and learning how to keep – strength, stability, and peace were all very familiar too, in a much more affirming way.
While I recognize that part of my strong favorable response to this book comes out of my personal experiences and history, I’d highly recommend it objectively too. The writing is immediately engaging, and not at all heavy-handed; the style has been aptly, and favorably, compared to Anne Lamott’s. (In fact, they’re apparently doing a “conversation tour” together in the spring of 2008.) Liz is a good observer and describer of both herself and others. The book is a fine armchair-travel experience, and I found some of her discussions of yoga and meditation to be useful in a practical manner (although they’re not intended to be instructional). It’s gratifying and inspiring to read of her development and growth as a character in her own story.
Elizabeth Gilbert makes it clear that this is a memoir of her own experience, and she’s not necessarily recommending this particular path for everyone. Having said that, I think many of us would be well served to seek what she did, even if we have to stay closer to home. It’s not a self-help book, but a story of how one woman helped herself. I don’t think this is a typical “inspirational” book, but I found it very inspiring and memorable. It will remain on my “keeper” shelf, but it’s one I would definitely buy again and again to give and share with others.