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'I have to say I came away from the whole endeavour with a peculiar respect for marriage,' author Elizabeth Gilbert says. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
'I have to say I came away from the whole endeavour with a peculiar respect for marriage,' author Elizabeth Gilbert says. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Sarah Hampson: The Interview

How a bitter divorce made author Elizabeth Gilbert a better wife Add to ...

"He's writing his own book, so you'll learn soon," says Elizabeth Gilbert, curled up in a chair with a cup of tea.

I had asked how her ex-husband, Michael Cooper, feels about Eat Pray Love, her enormously successful 2006 memoir about her search for happiness in Italy, India and Indonesia, following the bitter end of their marriage. The book has sold more than seven million copies. The movie adaptation, starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem as her lover - and now husband - Felipe, comes out this summer.

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Its popularity also helped catapult her recent memoir, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, to the top of the bestsellers list. Mr. Cooper's memoir, Displaced, which is reportedly a rebuttal, chronicling his side of their breakup, will be published in the fall.

How does she feel about that?

She shrugs, smiles weakly. "It is what it is."

Is she scared?

"No, not fear," she says, shaking her head. "I need to choose my words carefully," she says after a pause.

But why would he be doing a book, if not to bring her down somehow or bask in some reflected glory?

"We'll see," she continues lightly.

"It's not a lawsuit. It's under his control. It's his realm. It doesn't drag me into anything that will have an impact on my life." She takes a sip of her chamomile tea.

Nothing seems to faze Ms. Gilbert, who shifts from a beatific, Buddhist-like tea-offering calm only when she shows curiosity or when she unleashes one of her throaty laughs. She is all Smile Talk Laugh.

Committed, which works as a sequel to Eat Pray Love, explores her trepidation about remarrying. "The ambivalence wasn't 'Should I get married?' That was a given," she says. "The ambivalence was all around how do you do this without feeling like you're being forcibly marched into a form that's obsolete, that's politically disadvantageous to women in the extreme, that has an egregious history of injustice and misery and that you personally have a horrible history of misery with? Is there a little spot in there where you can rest at ease, and how do you find it?"

The book was prompted when she returned to the United States with Felipe, the Brazilian boyfriend she met in Indonesia. An airport Homeland Security officer pulled him aside to question him on his visa then suggested it would be better if they got married. Without hesitation, they decided they would, and for the year spent in "rootless exile" awaiting the slow bureaucratic wheels to turn so they could return to the United States together, Ms. Gilbert read and thought and wrote about marriage.

Part memoir, part history of marriage and part sociology report on marital trends, divorce statistics and couples expert advice, her new book has not been as well received. The reader knows from the start where Ms. Gilbert and her boyfriend will end up, and some of her ruminations seem a little overwrought. She jettisoned a 500-page draft and started over when she decided that the charming, girlish voice of Eat Pray Love was somehow unbecoming for a woman about to turn 40.

She's aware of the backlash her success has inspired, but responds to it with her signature calm. "I don't think there's a way you can get this much attention and not have some negative feedback," she says.

Anyway, the deliberation about marriage helped her, she says. "I have to say I came away from the whole endeavour with a peculiar respect for marriage … At a Darwinian level, I found there to be something amazing because this thing endures so stubbornly. It endures because it evolves."

She calls the latest evolution a "wifeless marriage," by which she means "that there's not one person who is sacrificing everything for the other or for a family." Felipe (not his real name) is 57, also divorced, with two grown children. They don't plan on having any of their own. (In Committed, Ms. Gilbert reveals that her reluctance to have children prompted her to seek a divorce. Mr. Cooper has gone onto remarry and have children. "I was relieved," she says of his news.)

"Our marriage has all these luxurious qualities that a lot of other people's marriages don't have," she acknowledges. "Suddenly, I'm very wealthy. The household is very wealthy. All those arguments about money are erased. And we don't have kids."

Still, there is certain "wife" behaviour that she avoids. "There was this sense in my first marriage that as soon as he walked into the house, my obligation was to be with him, in partnership, every moment that he was awake, and so I would put my work away and whatever I was doing away. I won't do that now," she says.

In Committed, she writes about hammering out a pre-nup (undisclosed) with her new partner. She also describes him as a loving, calm man. "He is very conflict-averse, which is nice. I am too. And we go far out of our way to suss out when we're in quicksand areas on the map. Like now, with the book coming out, there's a lot going on, and so we say, 'Let's be careful.' "

Asked if she feels pressure to make her second marriage work now that she has written about her deliberations, she delivers an immediate, simple answer over the rim of her tea cup. "I feel enormous pressure to make this marriage work and none of it comes from fan expectation - with all love and respect for my fans. It has to do with his kids and my parents and our hearts and what I don't ever want to go through again." She falls silent for a moment and then sits forward, keen to offer more reasons. "And it's the community we're part of, and the people who rely on us and the companionship I don't want to lose and my own character I want to uphold in terms of my own self-regard."

Divorce, it appears, has made her a better, happier, more committed wife.

 

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