After months of middle-of-the-night crying jags, she worked up the courage to tell her husband she wanted out. He didn't take it well.
After more than three years, he and his lawyers let her out, but not before she had to give up most of her worldly possessions, including the Hudson Valley home she had bought with the proceeds of her writing work. At least there was an upside: With nothing holding her down, Gilbert was able to light out for a year-long journey of "reclamation" and "renovation."
"I wanted to explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well," she writes in Eat, Pray, Love. "I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two."
The book is a travelogue of Gilbert's four months in each of those three countries as well as her own interior landscape. She revels in the sensual pleasures of Italy (primarily its food; she'd sworn off sex for the duration of her time there) and its language, which she'd decided to learn simply because of its beauty. In India she stays at an ashram, moving from a neophyte who can't stop her thoughts long enough to meditate to someone who assists others on their spiritual journey. While in Bali, she raises enough money (from her family and friends back home) to buy a plot of land for a single mother about to be rendered homeless. And, oh yes, she finds love. (And some great sex, too.)
The strength of Eat, Pray, Love is Gilbert's eminently likeable prose and the way her stance shifts slowly from humorous skepticism to (admittedly less humorous) earnestness. The transition, she says, is reminiscent of when she herself first went to the New York Open Center 10 years ago.
"I took my first yoga class when I was really stressed and really confused and really anxious, and I went there half ironically," she laughs. "I went there the way I went into this book -- half sort of rolling my eyes saying, 'I can't believe I'm falling for this freakin' yoga shit,' and halfway, like: 'Save me.' "
"I think the whole New Age movement -- if that's what we're gonna call it -- like many fields, could just use a little bit more irony, you know?" Another laugh.
Since returning from her journey two years ago, Gilbert no longer lives in New York. She bought a small deconsecrated church in rural New Jersey, about an hour outside the city, which is perfect since it's close enough that she can pop into the city but far enough away that she's not easily distracted.
After living in New York for about 15 years, she no longer feels the need to live here; she's been changed.
"I did see my friends sort of differently than I did before I left," she explains. "Not less lovingly but I just suddenly realized: God, they are living at this screaming pace, you know? And sort of howling through their lives with all this relationship pressure and all this work pressure and all this money pressure. I'm not at all the first person to say this or notice this or think it, but travelling to all these places I was saddened by the idea that we are exporting so much more of our pace than we are importing from the places where we oughtta be taking a little bit of a lesson, you know? In Italy now the word " stressato" is common. And that's sort of a new word that everybody says all the time -- because they are. Suddenly they're stressato, just like us. And my friend in Bali is catching it too. It's like a virus."
And Gilbert had her own year of trials after she came back from the journey.
Last spring, as she and her new love (who goes by the name Felipe in the book) were flying into the United States, he was detained in Dallas by Homeland Security and sent back home to Australia because they didn't like his visa. They were advised by an agent that the only way around the problem was for the two of them to get married -- which they had sworn up and down they were not interested in. (He too had had a first marriage that exploded.)
But at the end of last month, not just resolved to their fate but finally thrilled about the way things had turned out, Gilbert and Felipe tied the knot in their little converted church in rural New Jersey.
And this time she got a pre-nup.