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.
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I had one American friend down there. She was a big, non-picky reader—she read everything. When she left Buenos Aires to go back to the States, she left me with her stash of books, and when I found Eat, Pray, Love in that stash, I was primed. I was abroad, eating as much as I could and trying to correct the imbalance that’d developed in my life during my missteps after college. Some of my friends might have been disappointed in me for not knowing from one glance at the cover that this book was trouble, but one of the things I was glad to be rid of down there was that kind of smugness. So I opened the thing and started reading.
I liked the first two thirds of EPL (Eat and Pray) but I disliked the last third (Love) as much as I’ve ever disliked any piece of writing. I’m guessing that many of you reading this piece here haven’t read EPL, even if you think you know enough about it to form an opinion. Just in case thinking you know a book without reading it sounds a bit reckless, I’ll tell you all what it’s about.
A lady is making money as a writer and living with a devoted husband in a really nice house outside New York City. Her life should be perfect but she’s crying every night and she doesn’t know why. Somewhere amidst her tears she realizes she wants a divorce and that she believes in God. She goes to Italy to do something she’s always wanted to do—learn Italian—and nourish herself back to health with wine and prosciutto and all the other incredible things one can find in Rome.
Having nourished herself, she takes off for India where she goes to an ashram to meditate and explore her relatively newfound spirituality. At first, meditating is incredibly difficult, but in time she gets the hang of it, and by the end she’s meditating for hours and finding herself in close proximity to a blue light she identifies as divine but that, for me, cues memories of the artist James Turrell more than anything I ever heard about in church. She also meets a recovering addict who challenges her to be strong and exudes a rough-hewn sort of wisdom that she really appreciates.
I especially liked the second part of this memoir. I liked that Gilbert gutted it out and really learned to meditate. As a self-discoverer in South America, I occasionally met people who’d been to ashrams or had done spiritual things that required actual commitment and effort. Most Americans I met down there were like me—in their mid-twenties, coming off a few disheartening years in the professions. But sometimes I met men and women who really were serious about spirituality, and I liked these people. I don’t like that the liberal-secular culture I live in fails to nurture spirituality, as if spirituality is somehow antithetical to intelligence. And I respected the fact that these people really, really believed. Like, I envied the way in which they’d talk about their relationship with Jesus. I wished I had the capacity to do that somehow, not necessarily with Jesus, but with something. I wished I had their capacity for full-throttle, unreserved faith. And in EPL, I appreciated how Elizabeth Gilbert described meditation, how difficult and terrifying it was, and how with practice and patience she brought it into her life and discovered a type of consciousness that changed how she viewed the world around her:
The pounding blue energy keeps pitching through my body, and I can hear a sort of thrumming sound in my ears, and it’s so mighty now that I actually can’t deal with it anymore. It scares me so much that I say to it, “I’m not ready yet!” and snap open my eyes. It all goes away. I’m back in a room again, back in my surroundings. I look at my watch. I’ve been here—or somewhere—for almost an hour.
What I didn’t like is that, after Elizabeth Gilbert finds herself close to God, she presents us with Love. The implication I found in this was that once she found God, her life was solved: she found God, her growth was over and done with, now here’s her reward in the form of a sexy and caring Brazilian man. Which I think is completely insane. To me, the idea of finding God means not that life is solved, but that life’s challenges are recast. Where once the goal was to ascend—to God, in her framework; to something in my own far vaguer framework—now the goal is to live in accord with God’s will. That sounds incredibly difficult. First of all, what does it even mean to live in accord with God’s will? To resist temptation? To be good to your neighbor?
I’ve read the Old Testament and some of the New and I have no idea. But I do know that if I ever find God, my discovery will not be the end of my journey, the place where I ease into the luxury of my discovery’s reward, but rather the place where I start my new journey. The same goes for love; to me, the feeling of falling in love is not the end of growth but the beginning of growth, the rise from nascent potential to a more fully realized self and spirit. So the last third of EPL felt like a sham. I just don’t have it in me to believe that there’s a way to solve life once and for all, and I really, really don’t have it in me to believe that love is a ticket to retirement rather than to life itself.
That said, if I were to write about my experience in South America, it would read a lot like Eat, Pray, Love. Get sick, quit job, flee to cool city, eat food, drink wine, pat myself on the back for my passable command of a foreign language, write and read a lot, come home, evangelize.
Gilbert’s first novel, Stern Men, takes place on an island off the coast of Maine. A lady there is the adopted daughter of a rich family, but that family uses her as an indentured servant rather than treating her as one of their own. The lady has a daughter of her own, and that daughter is smarter than the other people on the island and doesn’t really fit in. She wants to stay on the island, though, and in time she meets a guy like her—a guy who’s also smarter than the other islanders—and they fall in love. At the end of the book, they’re in love and raising a family, and the daughter stands up to and at the same time forgives the “dragon” from the rich family who’d ruined her mother’s life.
Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, is about a woman born into a very rich family of nineteenth-century botanists and pharmaceutical manufacturers. The girl becomes a botanist herself, and also an intellectual, though she is not pretty and nobody is attracted to her. At a relatively advanced age, she falls in love with a guy who, on their wedding night, doesn’t sleep with her because he wants to be pure and live as if not on Earth but in Heaven. She is disappointed and insulted by this and banishes the guy to Tahiti, where he has an affair with an island Adonis and dies. She wonders if she was wrong to banish him, goes to Tahiti, learns about how wrong she had been in many of the assumptions that had defined her life, goes to Holland to soldier on as a botanist, gets old, remains a virgin and, in the face of death, seeks the support of a tree. The tree can’t save her from death, but she can lean on it in order to avoid collapsing into a mess on the ground while she’s still living. The message is that life isn’t perfect, and has its disappointments, but that disappointments and imperfection don’t mean that life isn’t beautiful.
What was impossible for me to swallow in Eat, Pray, Love was how it ended. I just couldn’t stomach the idea that Gilbert had solved her life once and for all. And despite my initial optimism, I think Signature suffers from the exact same problem—the happy ending.
Elizabeth Gilbert loves happy endings. In Eat, Pray, Love, she gives us the ultimate happy ending in the form of a narrator who finds the love that will solve her life on into forever. In Stern Men, the protagonist finally stands up to the tyrant who’s lorded over her family and, standing up to him, realizes that she has compassion towards him, as, one presumes, she has toward all fellow women and men, given that this is the evilest guy she’s ever known. And in Signature, Gilbert gives us an ending built on an epiphany. The epiphany is that life is the resistance of death, that curiosity fuels this resistance, that curiosity leads us to knowledge, and that the acquisition of knowledge makes life good even if the rest of life is bad.
The content of that epiphany shows the same suspicious instinct for consolation that afflicts Gilbert in EPL and Stern Men: things go wrong in life, but if you think about things the right way, even as life goes wrong, it goes right too because we get to be curious. Or: we may feel sad in life, but we can become wise enough to feel less sad. Reading this, you imagine that, after you turn the last page, the protagonist is going to die with a smile plastered across her face.
But what’s wrong with happy endings? My dad loves happy endings and refuses to watch movies that don’t have them. He wonders, when I say that I like to read … eh… really anyone but let’s say Kafka, how I can read books that are so depressing. I reply by saying that endings that shed light on consciousness, even if they’re “about” something that’s ostensibly unhappy, are actually happy too, for the light they’ve shed. That thought tends to end the conversation. But if I were to keep going with my dad, I’d say that truly transcendent endings must by definition be both happy and sad at the same time, or, be endings that aren’t defined by their happiness or sadness. Happiness and sadness, I would tell him, fall under the greater umbrella of aliveness. Good endings, I would argue, convey aliveness and thereby render the descriptors “happy” and “sad” moot. “Happy” and “sad” are in a constant balance/give-and-take under the umbrella of aliveness, and they’re almost always mixed together. To value one over the other is to value a temporary state over an everlasting one. So to end a book on a note defined by its happiness or sadness is to end on a note that’s going to expire, on a type of truth that has a short and fickle shelf life.
Then I would discuss a few examples. I would discuss Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which ends with the protagonist being abandoned to her own endless series of questions, which is all she ever had anyway. I would discuss how Charles Bock ends his quest in Beautiful Children with the uncertainty that accompanies the arbitrariness of any ending in life short of the one and only true ending, which is death. And then maybe I would note how Marianne Wiggins, in The Shadow Catcher, finds safety in the “uninterrupted susurration of lives stirring from their shadows toward sustaining light.”
These endings are existential rather than emotional. The only consolation here is their closeness to the truth of what life is. The consolation that Gilbert offers in Signature is the consolation that we don’t have to be as sad as we are—her consolation is hopeful, aspiring: If we can only forgive ourselves, if we can only see the true value of knowledge, then we will feel happy. Whereas the consolation available in the examples I provided is merely: This is what life is. Now you know. So go ahead, exhale, and stop worrying about it, because it’s not going to change.
Happy endings have their place, and I should say that I don’t begrudge my dad his preference. I very much like my dad the way he is, I don’t want him to change, and I would feel pretty weird and disoriented if he were to call me up and tell me he’d just read The Trial. I also very much like rom-coms. Comedies are my favorite kinds of movies to watch, and happy endings are the only way to end comedies.
But Gilbert does not write comedies. She writes stories about striving, conflicted, unorthodox heroines. She writes about what it is to be a woman, about spirituality, and about how to find one’s place in the world. She is a funny and playful writer. She’s at home on the page and the fun she has writing is completely infectious. But at the end of Stern Men, I felt cheated. I felt like Gilbert had wedged her optimistic, evangelical tendencies—forgive the dragon in your life for you are saved already!—into an otherwise good book. With Signature, the scope, the subject matter, the themes of work and purpose and romance and love and spirituality and sex, all were great. Again, though, Gilbert couldn’t seem to avoid the kind of ending that I find disappointing—if we are to die, we should do so smiling! So I thought those endings made those books mediocre. But to assess a novel as mediocre is a lot different from the way I felt after finishing Eat, Pray, Love.
What’s the difference between my acceptance of the happy endings in her novels and the revulsion I felt at the end of Eat, Pray, Love? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the novels are all fiction, while Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir and therefore professes to be true. While writing this piece, I asked a few friends why they thought people rebelled against Eat, Pray, Love so much. The most common response was something like, “Eat, Pray, Love is a fairy tale.” That sentence is missing its other half though. The full sentence would read: “Eat, Pray, Love is a fairy tale that claims to be true.”
If Eat, Pray, Love had been a novel, or had been classed as any kind of fiction, the ending would’ve been so absurd as to alienate a lot of the people who liked the book as a memoir. Finding perfection in life, willing oneself towards one’s #blessed, divine, sensual destiny, definitely would’ve felt absurd to readers like me, and I think it would’ve felt absurd even to happy-endings-only readers like my dad. Classing Eat, Pray, Love as nonfiction, though, pulls a neat trick. It makes that kind of happy ending palatable for a far wider spectrum of people. It allows readers to say, “This really happened! I can believe what I otherwise wouldn’t believe!”
I don’t know what to do with my craving for spirituality. I’ve been to yoga three times in my life and I’d say that every time I went I was pretty pleased with myself, but I wouldn’t use words any stronger than that. I’ve been to church way more than three times, and when I belt out those hymns, often I feel moved, and I don’t really know why. And sometimes somebody in there says something that moves me too. But I don’t (think I) believe in God, and when I go to church, I go mostly just to be on the same page as my dad, and to be there with him, because he picks the hymns and lights the candles and gets all excited about church meetings and shaking hands with people after the service.
What I want, though, is for someone to show me a way to believe in God without compromising my self, my intellect, or even my skepticism. I want somebody to show me a way to be totally skeptical about God and to believe in God wholeheartedly at the same time. Which means that I want to believe in a happy ending—in heaven, in life after death, in death not really being death but being like a really pleasant waking naptime thing where I get to spend time with the people I love and feel totally unburdened by all the stuff that bothers me now.
I’m not confident that anyone’s ever going to be able to do this for me. I’m also not confident that my spiritual ambitions are ever going to refine themselves—I think they’ll probably stay vague until the moment I die, when maybe I’ll find out the secrets of the universe and wonder why I spent so much time thinking about this stuff when I could’ve been watching comedies and having fun. The vaguer-than-God craving I have, though, is just for happiness. Just plain old happiness. That’s all I want. And I think that both the literary ending and the self help-y memoir ending address this same craving. It’s just that they approach it differently. The self help-y memoir ending asks us to suspend our ability to reason in order to indulge the buzz of inspiration that comes from believing that perfection—Heaven on Earth—is real. This buzz comes after finishing Eat, Pray, Love but before remembering that it would be impossible to retrace Gilbert’s footsteps. As soon as the thought of putting Gilbert’s wisdom to work enters into the picture, the buzz is gone. What lingers after the buzz dissipates is faith—“this happened to her, maybe something similar could happen to me.”
For me, literary endings, windows onto the truth of what it is to be alive, work better. They leave me feeling cleansed, calm and reassured. They flush me free of static. Some of this static would be my temptation to indulge life strategies that sound easy on paper but that don’t add up to much in real life. But literary endings also make me feel less alone. In pinpointing everlasting truths, they pinpoint experiences that are universal. And they make me feel stronger. They make me feel like I’ve absorbed durable wisdom. All of which—fellowship with other people, wisdom, inner calm—adds up to an ending that I’d call happy.
Art: A screenshot of Julia Roberts in the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love (2010)