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
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)