Com­mit­ted: A Skep­tic Makes Peace with Mar­riage

by El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert, Vik­ing, 285 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Lau­rel Glad­den

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.

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