When Elizabeth Gilbert released her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, many critics reacted favorably. Elizabeth Day wrote in the Guardian that it was “quite simply one of the best novels I have read in years.” Maria Arana for the Washington Post called it “radiant.” And Steve Almond for the New York Times Magazine said The Signature of All Things was “unlike anything [Gilbert] has ever written.”
Reading these reviews, I felt relieved that the author of Eat, Pray, Love had apparently come back around and restored herself to the career she’d had going long before she became a New Age hero. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert had published a novel, a short story collection and a biography. Now, with The Signature of All Things out in the world, I could think of Eat, Pray, Love as an aberration or a mistake. A lot of people liked Eat, Pray, Love. But the people who didn’t like Eat, Pray, Love—or, who didn’t like the idea of Eat, Pray, Love—really, really didn’t like it. I think those of us who didn’t like EPL had a problem with Gilbert’s idea that life can be reduced to a formula, that one can fix one’s life with a few easy steps. Eat + Pray + Love = Problem Solved.
The reviews of The Signature of All Things made it possible, momentarily at least, for me to think something along the lines of, “Oh, that wasn’t really Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote that memoir. That was somebody else. Something came over her. Maybe it was money or a fever, but whoever wrote that New Age memoir was not Elizabeth Gilbert. It was a corrupt spirit that only temporarily inhabited Elizabeth Gilbert’s body. And now, the real Elizabeth Gilbert is back.”
But is that really true? Or is it just wishful thinking, like the jilted lover telling himself that his ex, in deciding to leave him, must have gotten confused. Perhaps what’s most interesting to reflect on is that the person who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, and who presented the E+P+L formula, is someone who’s also a writer of books that have been categorized as literary fiction. The thought here that’s unsettling is that Gilbert’s New Age memoir came from the same mind that produced her literature. Aren’t those two supposed to be antithetical? Isn’t New Age memoir a cheap buzz of inspiration while literary fiction is a pathway for seekers of truth? Or are these two sensibilities more closely related than I had once thought?
I read Eat, Pray, Love in the summer of 2007. At the time I was 25; I was living in Buenos Aires; I was enjoying the feeling of having quit a job I didn’t like back home; and I was trying to gain weight. A few months before I had left San Francisco, I’d dropped from 180 to 140 pounds before being diagnosed with diabetes. Upon getting the diagnosis, I felt relieved to know what was wrong with me. As soon as I stopped drinking Coke and eating pastries, I felt a lot better. And as soon as I felt better, I felt glad to have gotten diabetes because it forced me to reconsider my life. I realized that I’d been waiting for my real life to come along, and for whatever reason, now that I was checking my blood sugar levels each day, I realized that waiting for life to come was a bad idea. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. So I decided to cross the big-time non-political border of the equator and start living now. And I’ll just go ahead and say that if your problem is that you’re underweight, and you’re also a low-carb dieter, the best place to go is Buenos Aires. I had huge steaks every night, washed down with red wine. I’m sure that had my endocrinologist heard about this she would’ve advised me to eat the occasional salad, but whatever—I had devised my own special diabetic weight gain diet, and I felt pretty damn good.