If there's anyone who reigns as the goddess of the divorce culture, it is Elizabeth Gilbert. When she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, her 2006 memoir about her self-prescribed remedy for divorce recovery - travels through Italy, India and Indonesia to nourish her physical, spiritual and emotional being - she gave voice to a struggle that many people endure silently and certainly not as consciously.
It didn't matter that most refugees from the land of happily-ever-after can't take off for a year and find themselves again in pasta and an ashram, and under a swaying palm tree. Many have children to care for (not an issue for Gilbert) and little money. Still, millions went with her vicariously, thanks to her delightful writing, which strikes the perfect conversational chord - funny, self-deprecating, humble and insightful.
Now, she returns with Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, another memoir, picking up where Eat, Pray, Love left off. In Indonesia, she met an older (by 15 years; she was 34) Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship. Felipe - as she chooses to name him - is also divorced. Neither wants to enter marriage again, even though they love each other and want to be together.
It's a Homeland Security interrogation officer named Tom who makes them see that it's their only choice. Because of his visa restrictions, Felipe has been able to stay in the United States for "ninety-day chunks of togetherness" before leaving the country again, an arrangement that suited them both even though it didn't conform with the intended purpose of the visa. When they returned after a trip, Felipe was detained and ordered back to Australia. In a soulless interrogation room in the bowels of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Officer Tom, a badge-wearing, chaplain-like man with a paunch, kindly suggested they get married.
It was an engagement ceremony that "felt more like something out of Kafka than out of Austen," Gilbert writes. Their declaration to each other? "I love you so much, I will even marry you."
When she sticks to lessons from her own life, she is brilliant
The decision sets off another journey of sorts, as the pair wander for close to a year in a state of "rootless exile" as they wait for the slow bureaucratic wheels to turn so they can both re-enter the United States to marry.
But the fact that they have already decided to do what Gilbert then spends close to 300 pages worrying about is what makes the book less compelling than her first memoir. She is not trying to find anything. There is a sense that what she is searching for is material to fill the book in order to arrive at a destination we already know. On that quest, she drops into a history of marriage: Plato's treatise on why humans long for union with another; gay marriage; compatibility studies; strategies for marital bliss according to the Relationship Institute in Seattle, and a few conversations with people she meets along the way, including Hmong women in Vietnam.
It's not that what she muses about is wrong or unhelpful. A gifted, award-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction, she is a good guide on such detours, even though she has a tendency to explain painstakingly that she is not trying to be a sociologist or an anthropologist. "Okay, Liz, but you are sort of being one," I felt like saying.
It's just that the content excursions feel unnecessary. And more important, she doesn't seem as angst-ridden as she purports to be. Who would be with a fiancé like Felipe? He sounds like a dream, frankly, despite the fact that he doesn't have many clean shirts. An easygoing, thoughtful guy who doesn't mind being a character in two memoirs, he once reached for her hand following a frustrated spat about their forced peripatetic lifestyle by saying, "Let's be careful right now, okay?"
Well, gee, I don't think there's a female reader in the world who wouldn't feel as I did at that point: Stop fretting, Liz, and marry the guy!
In Committed, she also reveals a bit more about the trouble in her first marriage, something she assiduously avoided in Eat, Pray, Love. Her ex-husband wanted children. She did not. That issue is solved with Felipe. He has two adult children and no desire for more. "That relief - the great thrumming relief that we both felt when we discovered that neither one of us was going to coerce the other into parenthood - still sends a pleasant vibrating hum across our life together," she writes. With that knowledge, the path for happy second marriage is paved when you consider that many therapists believe the dismal success rate for subsequent unions is the challenge of blended families.
Gilbert may have struggled to write this book in the shadow of Eat, Pray, Love - in a note to the reader, she explains that she produced a 500-page draft of Committed, which she then threw out before starting over - but when she sticks to lessons from her own life, she is brilliant. The exchange she has with her mother, who gave up a career to stay at home with her two daughters, rings completely true and is a valuable insight into the complicated institution of marriage. Studies - some of which Gilbert discusses - have shown that marriage doesn't treat women as well as men, and yet the choices people make, and the happiness they find within them, are unpredictable.
Gilbert's own observations about the effect of divorce and the decision to marry again also make the book memorable and deify her once again as a goddess of modern love. "I will do virtually anything to avoid going through that apocalypse again," she writes of divorce. "But I recognize that there's always the possibility of another divorce, exactly because I love Felipe, and because love-based unions make for strangely fragile tethers."
She understands that divorce has been helpful in some ways. It has rid her of what I think of as marital virginity: the lack of understanding of what that state means and what we should expect - or not. "I will enter into my second marriage with far more humility than I entered into my first. As will Felipe," she tells us. "Not that humility alone will protect us, but at least this time we'll have some."
Sarah Hampson is a writer with Globe Life.