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She ate, she prayed, she loved, she wrote about it Add to ...

Elizabeth Gilbert still doesn't know what to tell people when they ask her if they should leave their marriage. She gets these e-mails all the time from strangers who've read her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, and thereby figure she has some special insight into their situation. But, really, what's she gonna say? "How do I know?" she wondered the other day. "I still question how I left mine, how am I gonna solve theirs, you know?"

We should probably back up a step or two. You may not know of Gilbert and, if you do, you're probably wondering how she came to be a guru for what she calls, "the broken-hearted women's market." Because if you do know her, it would likely be as the author of The Last American Man, the deeply satisfying biography of a 21st-century backwoods frontiersman that was a 2002 finalist for a pair of honours, including the National Book Award. Or perhaps as the author of the alternately rollicking and sombre 1997 GQ article about her time as a bartender at an East Village dive, which was somehow mulched and morphed into the flashy and trashy flick Coyote Ugly. A guy's writer, in other words.

And now? Last month, as Gilbert went on a 21-day, 18-stop tour to promote the paperback edition of her memoir, she watched while women choked bookstores and coffee shops and houses of worship across the country. Two days before her first event, at the New York Open Center in SoHo, which specializes in holistic health and offers classes in yoga, spiritual inquiry and feng shui, she got a call notifying her they'd had to relocate her talk to a larger venue because they'd already sold more than 300 tickets. After a reading in Colorado, one reporter wrote that, "virtually every woman in Boulder between the ages of 25 and 70 showed up."

"What they're in the market for is hope, you know? Camaraderie," says Gilbert, 37, savouring a light lunch of fruits de mer at Bouchon Bakery. "A big thing I've realized, particularly at this point in America, is how very much on our own we are. And I think that's why people flock to Oprah Winfrey, because she creates this sense of community." (We should probably add that Gilbert writes for Oprah magazine now.)

Eat, Pray, Love is one of those grassroots success stories. It came out in February, 2006 to good reviews and some strong sales, but nothing that would foretell a longer life. Then, little by little, extraordinary word-of-mouth -- one woman pressing a copy knowingly into the sobbing chest of a friend; a mother sagely passing it to her lovelorn daughter -- helped the book maintain sales of about 10,000 hardcover copies a month.

Now, less than two months after the paperback edition hit bookstores, there are more than half a million copies in print (and another 130,000 hardcovers).

This week it is No. 3 on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list, one notch above Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

And, oh yeah, after a scrum of actresses each suggested they wanted to make it into a film, Julia Roberts ponied up to the table with a sweet package: a writer, director, producers, a chunk of money, and her own America's Sweetheart face for the starring role of Elizabeth Gilbert.

She exhales a little laugh at the twists her life has taken. "You know, I'm female, and that's the sort of thing I think I kind of forgot when I was in my 20s. I was so intent on being one of the guys, and I certainly didn't identify with the broken-hearted women's market then. I would have had nothing but contempt for it. But personal experience is a mighty humbling teacher, and I now belong to those women as much as I ever belonged to those GQ readers."

So what's all the fuss? What's that personal experience she's talking about?

Eat, Pray, Love carries the subtitle One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, which sort of sums it up except that it makes the book sound far less smartly self-aware than it is.

In early 2001, Gilbert realized she was deeply unhappy in her six-year-old marriage. Monumentally, clinically, suicidally so. She didn't want to have children, didn't want to settle down, didn't want the life she was heading toward.

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