by Fernanda Moore
In the late ’90s, Elizabeth Gilbert’s range, ambition and talent made her the paradigmatic Young Author to Watch. Her first published story appeared in Esquire under the heading “The Debut of an American Writer,” her first story collection (1997’s Pilgrims) won a Pushcart, her first novel (2000’s Stern Men) joined Pilgrims as a New York Times Notable book, and her first nonfiction book (2002’s The Last American Man) was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award. Meanwhile, her magazine articles turned heads in Hollywood. (A piece in GQ inspired the Disney movie “Coyote Ugly.”) Gilbert seemed unstoppable.
But as her professional star rose, her personal life unraveled. Married yet miserable, secretly horrified by the idea of a “big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop,” Gilbert had an epiphany while sobbing on her bathroom floor in the middle of the night: she wanted out.
After divorce, a doomed rebound affair and serious depression left her “feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old” (she was, in fact, in her early 30s), Gilbert began to recognize her own true passions: to learn Italian, meditate at an Indian Ashram and apprentice herself to a Balinese medicine man she’d met while researching an article. The only problem was deciding which dream to pursue. Gilbert, whose voracious appetite for food, spirituality and affection informs every page of her subsequent memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, decided to go for broke and spend a year trying them all. Sensibly securing a book advance to finance her trip, she set off for Rome.
In the way of all good pilgrims, our heroine fulfills her quest. She learns Italian, finds nirvana and manages, with assistance from a courtly older Brazilian named Felipe, to mend her broken heart. Yet her book never devolves into self indulgence; even at her most confessional, Gilbert’s gimlet eye never fails. (One of the book’s funnier moments occurs when the Balinese medicine man fails to recognize her when she shows up to fulfill her destiny.) She consistently splits the difference between cultural reportage (her take on Italian soccer fans is priceless) and painful personal revelation. “I’ve never been a particularly private person to begin with,” Gilbert wrote in a recent email interview with the Scene. “But I also believe that, if you’re going to do something, you should do it completely. What’s the point of the impersonal memoir?”
With the book’s publication last year, Gilbert became a best-selling phenomenon. Where her first book tour once yielded an audience of two (one of whom was the bookstore owner), this one has been markedly different: “I’ve been staggered, really, by the crowds,” she says. And Gilbert is unfailingly generous when it comes to sharing the stage. On her website (elizabethgilbert.com), she offers contact information for several of the book’s unforgettable secondary characters, and fans have actually retraced her steps, looking for enlightenment. Gilbert’s Balinese medicine man, for example, “says people come to see him all the time now, which is wonderful for him, as he is no longer empty in his bank, and wonderful for the pilgrims, since he does deliver an unforgettable encounter. Best of all, it’s wonderful for me, since Ketut Liyer, now that I’ve made him famous, actually remembers who I am when I come to see him!”
And Hollywood has once again come calling. A movie, with Julia Roberts attached, is already in the works, and Gilbert is delighted: “For me, like many women aged 37, she’s Our Julia—I grew up laughing and crying with her. I’ve missed her on the screen—I know, she’s been busy with other things.”
Roberts, of course, has been busy with the precise domestic concerns (marriage, babies) that were once anathema to Gilbert. Yet Gilbert’s latest project is, of all things, a nonfiction book about marriage. “The great benefit of being a writer is that you can use your vocation as a tool through which to understand questions that are vexing or fascinating you,” she explains. Which begs a burning question about the end of Eat, Pray, Love: Whatever happened with Felipe?
Reader, she married him.To read Fernanda Moore’s full interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, visit nashvillescene.com.
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