One of my acquaintances believes the runaway international best-seller, "Eat, Pray, Love," should have been named "Starvation, Celibacy, Death" to better represent what author Elizabeth Gilbert experiences in its pages. Clearly the multiple pizzas Gilbert devours in Italy and her budding romance with Felipe in Bali don't satisfy my friend's appetites.
But for every Elizabeth Gilbert naysayer, there are many more fans -- 750 of whom sold out her Washington, D.C., reading last week -- the second stop in Gilbert's multi-city tour of "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage." See my colleague Lizzie Skurnick's take on Gilbert's memoir here.
Briefly, the story is that when Felipe was forced to leave the United States by the Department of Homeland Security, he and Gilbert had no choice but to marry, a step they vowed to never take after their messy divorces. The book is their journey toward marriage and Gilbert's research into the institution en route.
When I last heard Gilbert speak, it was before "Eat, Pray, Love" had gone strastospheric, and she had been shoehorned into a Saturday afternoon slot at Politics & Prose, our city's most beloved independent bookstore. That's because the chain where she'd been scheduled canceled her gig at the last minute.
But treating Gilbert as a mere writer is behind us. I imagine J.K. Rowling might draw the same crowd, but I'm not sure.
In fact, I haven't felt such intense anticipation in Washington since I stood in line a year ago on an equally cold day to take my seat at Barack Obama's inauguration. And the women in the audience -- and a few intrepid men -- hung on Gilbert's every utterance, even though I'd guess many of her acolytes know more about marriage than she does.
Despite the adulation, though, Gilbert seemed to be stubbornly resisting the temptation to overreach. She answered one questioner saying, "You're asking me for marital advice? It's like asking Dick Cheney for foreign-policy diplomacy advice." (Gilbert's opening remark had earlier made her politics clear: "Please buy this book. And if you can, buy it this week. It would mean more to me than I can possibly express to knock Sarah Palin off the best-seller list. It's for the good of our nation.")
Still, she did offer her take on successful relationships. Dismissing the notion of soul mates -- she said it gives her a rash -- she said it's not just Felipe and her who are "a fish and a bird," being from different countries, but that it's true of almost all marriages. The ones that work are those in which the couple "find a way to get around each other's contradictions." It would have helped me to hear that 12 years ago, before I got married, instead of having to take the better part of my husband's and my first decade together to figure it out -- and even then, not nearly so crisply.
As she does in "Eat, Pray, Love," Gilbert cautioned audience members (except perhaps those brave men) to take responsibility for themselves by being their "own husband and father." You should not look "to find someone to complete [you] but someone who's a full-time adult," she said. "You can't do that without turning on all the lights and checking all the references."
I went to the reading not because I'm gaga for Gilbert but because I wanted to try to figure out the reasons for her wild popularity. Maybe it's her willingness to tell her story in all its rawness for which one audience member thanked her (Gilbert's answer: I'm not a very private person). But I tend to think it's also because she possesses an ability remarkable in our time to own her actions.
As my sister and I were leaving the synagogue where the event was held, the woman in front of us knocked over the trash can, spilling its leaky contents onto the steps. She kept walking, leaving us -- and her husband -- to pick up the strewn Starbucks cups. Leaving people to do her dirty work, I suspect, is something that Gilbert would never do.