Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
by Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, 285 pages
Every writer dreams of a fate like Elizabeth Gilbert’s. Eat, Pray, Love, her 2006 memoir about her post-divorce soul searching and globe-trotting, has become a worldwide “megajumbo” bestseller (7 million copies sold to date). It has been translated into 30 languages and is the basis of a movie due in theaters later this year. In anybody’s book, that’s a hard act to follow.
“Everywhere I go now, people treat me like I’m doomed,” Gilbert said to a crowd in February 2009. “They say, ‘ Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all?’… It is exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.” Clearly, the author was anxious about her follow-up.
She needn’t have worried. The momentum of Eat, Pray, Love and her faithful readers’ hankering for more of her intelligent wit and candid self-awareness have already propelled Committed to the top of the charts (it debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list). However, commercial success doesn’t guarantee that the new book is as creatively triumphant or engaging as its predecessor.
At the end of the year chronicled in Eat, Pray, Love, which Gilbert spent in Italy (eating), India (praying), and Indonesia, she fell in love with “Felipe,” a Brazilian-born man with an Australian passport who had taken up temporary residence in Bali (like Gilbert, he was nursing wounds from a previous failed marriage). As Committed opens, we find the two cobbling together a peripatetic life: Felipe would visit Gilbert in Philadelphia for three-month stints, in between which they would travel the globe together or spend time apart. They were happily committed to each other— and to never getting married again.
In early 2006, however, a U.S. Customs agent in the Dallas-FortWorth Airport detained Felipe, refusing to let him enter the country. Homeland Security officers interrogated him at length. Before putting him on the next plane to Australia, one sympathetic official explained that to visit the U.S. again, Felipe needed a more permanent visa. The fastest way to obtain it, he admitted, would be for Gilbert and Felipe to get married. No-brainer, right?
Not for the divorce-scarred Gilbert, apparently: “I felt mournful and sucker punched and heavy and banished from some fundamental aspect of my being.” For the next 10 months, she and Felipe wandered throughout Southeast Asia, waiting for the official government go-ahead to wed. During this time, the terrified Gilbert calmed her nerves and assuaged her fears by investigating “what in the name of God and human history this befuddling, vexing, contradictory and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is.” That is to say, she researched matrimony— in history and around the world— and examined it from every possible angle.
Committed suffers from being more heady and less heartfelt than its predecessor. It’s a hodgepodge of astute observations, charming and sometimes humorous anecdotes, factual and academic trinkets, and an unabashed exposé of Gilbert’s neuroses. The scholarly portions of the book are certainly informative. We learn that “for approximately ten centuries, Christianity itself did not see marriage as being either holy or sanctified.” Historically, marriage has been seen as a union between one man and several women, one woman and several men, two men, siblings, children, the unborn, or even a living woman and a dead man. In modern Iran, young couples can request permission to be married for a day so they can be seen in public together. Gilbert reveals that “in every single society … whenever arranged marriage is replaced by… people choosing their own partners based on love, divorce rates will immediately begin to skyrocket.” And statistics show that, in terms of physical, mental, and financial health, marriage benefits men more than women.
Gilbert’s work is most engaging when she weaves in with these facts anecdotes and honest recountings of her own experiences and observations. The sweetest parts of Committed are the personal ones, like the story of her grandmother Maude’s life; her mother’s short-lived attempt at being a career woman, a wife, and a mother; and an argument she and Felipe have during a hot, bumpy 12-hour bus ride through Laos. Throughout, Gilbert’s voice remains friendly, wise, and endearing; and her prose is smart and clear.
At times, though, the material feels fluffed and spun— perhaps better suited for a magazine feature. After 285 pages, the hemming and hawing becomes a little tiresome. I didn’t get the feeling that Gilbert ever truly contemplated not marrying Felipe (isn’t the book’s title kind of a spoiler?), and I failed to see how having a firm intellectual grasp on the history and impact of matrimony could quell her fears. That said, no one could accuse her of entering into the institution lightly.