Friday, April 30, 2010


Having read, and fallen in love with Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling title Eat Pray Love, and being married myself, I decided to read her follow up book titled Committed. It is a celebration of marriage, with all the complexities and consequences that real love and relationships actually entail. Gilbert dives into the ever changing history of the institution of marriage, researching, interviewing and examining her own experiences of marriages, and her analysis of how her own prejudice and preconceived notions were tarnishing her ability to see how she could have a happy marriage of her own.

At the end of her memoir, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who’d been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but also swore to never, under any circumstances get legally married, for they were both survivors of previous abhorrent divorces. But providence intervened one day in the form of the United States government, which—after unexpectedly detaining Felipe at an American border crossing—gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again. Having been effectively sentenced to wed, Gilbert tackled her fears of marriage by delving into this topic completely, trying with all her might to discover through historical research, interviews, and much personal reflection what this stubbornly enduring old institution actually is.

Told with wit, intelligence and honesty, Gilbert attempts to provide an eye-opening and thorough account of the colossal entity we call matrimony. We have all grown up accepting marriage as a given. It seems to be taken as common place that people simply grow up and get married- and then, of course, live happily ever after. But Gilbert tries to examine the questions of compatibility, infatuation, fidelity, family tradition, social expectations, divorce risks and humbling responsibilities.

I have to be honest when I say that I was a bit disappointed with this book. I understood going in that it was not going to be another Eat Pray Love, but I thought it would be a little more personal than it turned out to be. The good news is her voice is clear and winning. The bad news is the structure doesn't work. Part history, part travelogue, Committed often makes for a jumpy read. Still, Gilbert remains the spirited storyteller she was in Eat Pray Love, and her central question is a good one—how can a divorce-scarred feminist make a case for marriage?

Throughout the book there were, however, some interesting and memorable vignettes, told in jaunty, ever-curious prose, that brought some life to the otherwise dull book. Gilbert gives us a glimpse into the lives and marriages of the Hmong women in Asia, who don't expect their husbands to be their best friends, and ultimately view matrimony and their partners quite differently than we do in the west. How in modern Iran, young couples can marry for a day, how marriage has been viewed by different religions throughout the centuries, not always as sacred as it has been portrayed to be, with Christians actually being against marriage in the beginning, seeing it as anti-religious, and the way marriage has been used to secure money, power, and property throughout history. Quite simply, Gilbert explains this institution has been pulled, prodded, and changed for centuries- yet still it remains. There is something, then that draws us still to marry.

The History of marriage is fascinating, and I'm glad to have learned more about it, having made many uneducated assumptions about it's history up until now. However, it seems to me that Gilbert is more interested in the history of divorce rather than marriage. She seems excited when she finds out that in medieval Germany, there were two kinds of marriages, one more casual than the other, and seems furious when she recounts the ill effects of the Church on divorce, as it turned marriage into a life sentence. For all of its academic ambition, the most memorable bits of Committed are the personal ones, when she recalls stories about her and her family. Reading about the way her grandfather scattered her grandmother's ashes was heartbreaking yet inspiring, and the story Gilbert shares about the fight she and Felipe had on a 12-hour bus ride in Laos is honest, funny, and I would have liked there to be more of her personal stories throughout the book. For me personally, I learn more from personal, sincere anecdotes, than I do from a page of historical facts, although it's interesting non the less.

Gilbert put a respectable amount of time into research, interviews, reading, and the physical writing of this book. She even scraped her first attempt at it, not liking how she was coming across on the pages. Unfortunately, it seems like it was all a bit of a waste, at least for her personally. Like I expressed earlier, I was glad to have a place where I could learn about some of the more interesting highlights of the evolution of marriage, but it was what Gilbert's own fiance, Felipe, said that seemed to be the big tipping point for her. Late in the story, when she is struggling to figure out the meaning of it all, he says, "When are you going to understand? As soon as we secure this bloody visa and get ourselves safely married back in America, we can do whatever the hell we want". That seemed to be the most enlightening piece of information, and somehow made Gilbert's efforts seem rather pointless.

I adore Eat Pray Love for a variety of reasons. Committed however, is not Eat Pray Love, and thankfully, it doesn't pretend to be. My tip, don't read this book if you are hoping to lose yourself in a compelling story, because you might get bored. Read it if you are interested in learning about marriage - what it is and what it is not, why it sometimes works and why it sometimes doesn't - and are prepared to examine your own assumptions about this beautiful yet fraught concept. Also remember that this book contains Gilbert's personal thoughts, ideas, and fears about marriage, and that it's ok to disagree, for as this book teaches us, marriage is personal and individual to every couple, country and religion.

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