Life­style

El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert went through an ag­o­nis­ing di­vorce, the spring­board for her best-sell­ing novel Eat, Pray, Love. Now mar­ried and liv­ing in child­less bliss, she tells Eleanor Mills why avoid­ing moth­er­hood means she can have it all

Friday - - Contents -

Best-sell­ing Amer­i­can nov­el­ist El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert on her ca­reer and the key to a bliss­ful life.

What would you do if you could do any­thing, if you weren’t afraid?” It’s the kind of ques­tion posed by in­nu­mer­able self-help man­u­als, but to­day it’s be­ing put to me di­rectly by an au­thor whose own an­swer to it re­sulted in a mem­oir that sold more than 10 mil­lion copies.

El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert’s Eat, Pray, Love – her sear­ing ac­count of how she put her­self back to­gether af­ter a lac­er­at­ing di­vorce by scoff­ing pasta in Italy (Eat), med­i­tat­ing in In­dia (Pray) and find­ing ro­mance again in Bali (Love) – was such a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non it was turned into a block­buster movie star­ring Ju­lia Roberts and Javier Bar­dem. Gil­bert de­scribes her visit to the set in Rome as “sur­real: like watch­ing your own life re­played”.

It is a crisp blue au­tumn day and Gil­bert, dressed in a sun­shine-yel­low lace dress, is pos­ing for pic­tures with her dog and sev­eral cats around the ram­bling, bo­hemian house that Eat, Pray, Love bought. We are tech­ni­cally here to talk about her new novel, The Sig­na­ture of All Things, a ro­man­tic romp about a 19th-cen­tury woman botanist who comes to the same con­clu­sion as Charles Dar­win about evo­lu­tion and mankind’s ori­gins. But we keep get­ting dis­tracted by other topics – chil­dren, gun con­trol in the US, cook­ing, travel and, par­tic­u­larly, her lu­di­crously ex­pen­sive and high-tech Ja­panese lava­tory, which I have to visit sev­eral times to test the dif­fer­ent dry­ing, wash­ing and jet set­tings.

De­spite the mil­lions Gil­bert earned from Eat, Pray, Love, her Vic­to­rian tim­ber prop­erty, above the tiny set­tle­ment of Frenchtown in New Jersey, US, is homely rather than grand. She is en­dear­ingly shifty about her four-bed­room ‘palace’ and how it is “em­bar­rass­ingly big and grandiose

‘IN MY FAM­ILY IT’S OK TO

MAKE MONEY BUT IT’S NOT OK TO SPEND IT’

for just two peo­ple”. Later, she con­fesses to hav­ing been raised by an im­mensely fru­gal fa­ther. She even toyed with pen­ning another mem­oir called Per­fectly Good, her dad’s catch­phrase for ev­ery­thing from a 25-year-old clapped­out car to a thread­bare sheet. “No Gil­bert can ever feel easy about spend­ing money, thanks to him,” she laughs. “In my fam­ily it’s OK to make it, but you’re not meant to spend it.” She claims her only lux­u­ries are “my house and gar­den and busi­ness-class flights... Oh, and the odd online frock that ar­rives through the post in a box.” And that ec­cen­tric loo? “Oh, that was all Jose. He called me from Tokyo air­port once, say­ing we just had to have one.”

Ah, Jose, the ‘love’ of Eat, Pray, Love: an older Brazil­ian gem trader she met in In­done­sia. Th­ese days, in true Hol­ly­wood happy-end­ing style, the cou­ple live to­gether in small-town bliss. She ges­tures to the “feast of yum­mies” – brie, figs, blue­ber­ries and honey – piled on the porch ta­ble by Jose, to help sus­tain us through our con­ver­sa­tion.

I am agog to meet the fa­mous hus­band, ex­pect­ing a craggy, hand­some Javier Bar­dem looka­like (Gil­bert, tall, blonde and rangy, with a warm man­ner and easy charm, has a dis­tinct whiff of Ju­lia Roberts about her). So when a small, bald­ing, slightly chubby older man ap­pears, it takes me a sec­ond to re­alise that it’s him, the Jose, the hunk, her saviour. Luck­ily, beauty is in the eye of the be­holder. “He’s such a ma­ter­nal man,” coos Liz, as Jose an­nounces he is off to work in the nearby South­east Asian fur­ni­ture and knick-knack em­po­rium he owns.

I can’t say I am sur­prised that he doesn’t stick around. For a pri­vate man, he’s had more than his fair share of ex­po­sure; when he and Liz met in Bali, she was al­ready two-thirds of the way through writ­ing Eat, Pray, Love, and could not pos­si­bly have imag­ined how big their hum­ble love story would be­come.

The way she tells it is clas­sic Gil­bert – a con­fid­ing rush of de­tail, laced with self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour: “It was a bit like hav­ing to tell some­one, ‘Hey, I like you, but I’ve got a kid, or I’ve been in jail.’ I mean, when is the right mo­ment to tell some­one you are go­ing to have to write about them? The third date? Fourth date? You don’t want to be pre­sump­tu­ous about the sit­u­a­tion, but you don’t want to put it off too long. Even­tu­ally, I said, ‘I’m writ­ing a book about ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing to me, and, um, you seem to be hap­pen­ing to me. How would you feel about be­ing in it?’ He said, ‘Well, what will the con­se­quences be?’ I said, ‘Min­i­mal, no­body reads my books.’”

She laughs. At that point she was a writer for GQ and had pub­lished some short sto­ries and a bi­og­ra­phy. “I said to him” – she gri­maces – “’It will be out on the book­shelves for, like, two weeks and then it will be gone.’” I in­ter­ject: “Ten mil­lion books later?”. “Yup, that’s been brought up,” she says, throw­ing her head back and roar­ing with laugh­ter.

That kind of suc­cess is ev­ery writer’s dream. But af­ter the mael­strom of Eat, Pray, Love – global tours, Oprah, 90,000 mem­bers on her Face­book chat group – Gil­bert found her­self “paral­ysed” when it came to writ­ing the next book. “There was no way I could write some­thing that wouldn’t dis­ap­point. Peo­ple had such a pro­found con­nec­tion to that book.”

Per­haps un­wisely, she fol­lowed with another mem­oir, Com­mit­ted, about mar­riage – an at­tempt to salve her own con­flicted emo­tions about get­ting hitched again. Af­ter swear­ing she would never again be a wife, she and Jose had to tie the knot if he was to be al­lowed to live in the US. She wrote and rewrote it.

It felt, she says, as if 10 mil­lion crit­ics were pe­rus­ing ev­ery sen­tence. Lib­er­a­tion came when she “called my­self out on the nar­cis­sism of the idea that ev­ery­one in the world is watch­ing, which is never true. The re­al­ity is, peo­ple aren’t re­ally think­ing about you even when they’re read­ing the book. They are think­ing about them­selves.”

A true work of fic­tion?

She ad­mits that writ­ing a novel was a relief from au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ing. But I’m struck by how much Frenchtown is like the fic­tional world of her new book. Her house even looks out over the Delaware River, just as the man­sion de­scribed in The Sig­na­ture of All Things does – al­though Gil­bert is at pains to point out that the novel

‘I WOULD HAVE BEEN THE

COOLEST DAD BUT NOT A VERY GOOD MUM’

is set a lit­tle fur­ther down, to­wards Philadel­phia. The book is a page­turner with in­tel­lec­tual pre­ten­sions; span­ning much of the 19th cen­tury, it’s a bold, sweep­ing look into what it is to have a pas­sion for knowl­edge and an at­tempt to de­fine the schism be­tween sci­ence and art.

Gil­bert, a grafter who likes to write be­fore the world wakes up, reg­u­larly start­ing at 4am, did end­less re­search, and the book is also heavy on the de­tails of botany. She went to the hot­houses at Kew and looked at old draw­ings of or­chids by the 19th-cen­tury hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist James Bate­man, as well as vis­it­ing Tahiti, where the book reaches an un­sat­is­fy­ing cli­max. She says she got the plant bug while de­sign­ing her own gar­den at home.

But the most in­tense part of the novel is the un­usual re­la­tion­ship at its heart: a mar­riage in which the woman adores the man, but he does not re­cip­ro­cate. It is so vis­cer­ally writ­ten that it must surely be based on Gil­bert’s own ex­pe­ri­ence?

“Yes,” she ad­mits. “I know very well what it feels like and it’s hor­ri­ble.” She pauses, un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally silent. “They were some of the most dev­as­tat­ing mo­ments of my life. It hap­pened in my 20s, those fine care­free years of an­guish aplenty.” Is she a great be­liever in min­ing her own mis­ery? “Of course,” she says. “A writer should never let suf­fer­ing go to waste.”

En­cour­ag­ing women to ask ques­tions

Eat, Pray, Love res­onated be­cause it told women in no un­cer­tain terms that they shouldn’t set­tle for sec­ond best. It be­came a ban­ner for a (priv­i­leged) kind of fe­male em­pow­er­ment. But Gil­bert has also been ac­cused of writ­ing about first-world prob­lems, and she tells me how, just a few weeks ago, she was on a TV show with a “cool indie rock star who said, ‘You are to blame for the ru­ina­tion of so many women.’ He was ba­si­cally ac­cus­ing me of putting ideas into women’s heads! He was sort of jok­ing, but he sort of wasn’t.”

Gil­bert tells of her own strug­gles with the ex­pec­ta­tions put on her by her fam­ily in the US, how she ran away from a suf­fo­cat­ing mar­riage in which she was ex­pected to “do ev­ery­thing”. Hav­ing mar­ried at 24, she’d put off hav­ing chil­dren un­til she was 30, but the pres­sure was mount­ing. She re­mem­bers in her late 20s be­ing on a boat in New

Zealand, where she had been sent by GQ on an as­sign­ment to find a gi­ant squid, and weep­ing – be­cause “I felt that ev­ery time I did a trip like that it would be the last time”.

Eat, Pray, Love be­gins with her ly­ing on the bath­room floor, sob­bing and plead­ing for help. It was in that mo­ment that she re­alised she ei­ther had to get out of the mar­riage and start liv­ing her own dreams, or be mis­er­able for the rest of her life.

“I got a let­ter just yes­ter­day froma girl in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship who was about to marry the guy when the book fell into her hands and she backed out, and went trav­el­ling and worked out her own de­mons,” she says. “The book gave women per­mis­sion to ask those fun­da­men­tal dan­ger­ous ques­tions: what am I do­ing to care formy­self? When was the last time I ex­pe­ri­enced won­der? Am I per­mit­ted to seek it? Is this a good enough life for me?” Gil­bert says she is not alone in feel­ing the pres­sure of so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions, and ad­mits she al­most sub­mit­ted to them her­self. “De­spite be­ing a world trav­eller, hav­ing a ca­reer as a writer, go­ing to a great univer­sity and liv­ing in New York City, be­cause of the ex­pec­ta­tions upon me I came within an inch of agree­ing to have kids be­fore I had a men­tal and phys­i­cal break­down, be­cause what I was march­ing to­wards was so much the op­po­site of what I ac­tu­ally wanted.”

I say this sounds ex­treme – surely there no longer has to be a Hob­son’s choice be­tween kids and ca­reers. Mil­lions of women now have both. Gil­bert says, for her, it wouldn’t have worked. “In my fam­ily, once the kids are there, you as a per­son no longer ex­ist. That’s the way it would have been in the mar­riage I was in. I was al­ready do­ing ev­ery­thing, be­ing the bread­win­ner, do­ing it all. The mar­riage was all about him.”

But things have changed a lot since then. She is now a lady of con­sid­er­able means, with a “ma­ter­nal” hus­band; surely she could be a writer and a mother if she wanted? She’s 44, it might still be pos­si­ble. She shakes her head. “I would have been the coolest dad, but I don’t think I would be a very good mom. I’m a ter­rific provider, I’m a high earner, I love kids, I’m re­ally fun... but what moth­er­hood means to me is not some­thing I am cut out to be, I just don’t think I could do the parental heavy lift­ing that goes with be­ing a real mum... and Jose, who is a very ma­ter­nal man, he stayed home and raised his kids in his first mar­riage and he is older and doesn’t want to do it again. He’s just so grate­ful that I don’t want to have kids.”

We have been talk­ing for more than two hours and Rocky the dog is get­ting rest­less. “Do you fancy a walk?” she asks. Gil­bert goes off to change out of her dress. I visit the ex­tor­tion­ately ex­pen­sive hi-tech Ja­panese loo, chuck­ling to my­self as I change the flush di­rec­tion and ex­per­i­ment with the dry­ing fa­cil­ity. Gil­bert reap­pears, clad in jeans, a panama hat, a scruffy blue T-shirt and grey plim­solls. With­out the glam­orous frock, she looks younger, care­free – a civil­ian. We go on her favourite walk down a dap­pled path, be­side a canal dug by Ir­ish labour­ers who had come to the new world to live their own dream.

As we stroll, I mull over her big ques­tion: what would you do if you weren’t afraid? The truth is, I’d prob­a­bly try to write a best-sell­ing book and live by the sea.

How about you?

Gil­bert was played by Ju­lia Roberts and her now-hus­band by Javier Bar­dem in the film ver­sion of her book Eat, Pray, Love

Gil­bert, 44, says of her hus­band Jose, “He’s just so grate­ful I don’t

want to have kids’ Left: Gil­bert’s lat­est book is avail­able at Magrudy’s (Dh78)

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