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.
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.