- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

COMMITTED: A SKEPTIC MAKES PEACE WITH MARRIAGE

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking, $26.95, 304 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Eight years ago, rather than stay home and stare at the rubble of her failed marriage and an equally disastrous rebound affair that ended in her depression, the talented American writer-journalist Elizabeth Gilbert took a hike. Well, a trip would be more accurate. She wrote that on her yearlong jaunt to Italy, India and Indonesia, “I wanted to explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well. I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two.”

That trip became “Eat, Pray, Love,” Ms. Gilbert’s mega-best-seller (over two years on the New York Times list). It was the author’s fourth - and fourth highly praised - book, and is being made into a movie with Julia Roberts (as Ms. Gilbert) and Javier Bardem.

Not only did Ms. Gilbert find her balance (whatever that is), but at the end of her trip she also found romance. It took the form of a Brazilian-born Aussie 17 years her senior who was about as laid back as Ms. Gilbert was frenetic. They made a compound vow - to love each other eternally but never to marry. This book explains - and explains and explains and explains - what she had against the institution of marriage and why she changed her mind.

In point of fact, Ms. Gilbert didn’t change her mind; she had it changed for her, and by a most unlikely cupid: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Elizabeth and Felipe, who had met in Bali, had been living mostly in the United States, where he was able to get a series of three-month visas, a process they’d been told by an immigration officer in New York was perfectly legal. Only it wasn’t, explained Officer Tom, the friendly Homeland Security cop at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, who concluded his interrogation by suggesting that the couple get married. If they didn’t, Felipe would never be allowed into the United States again.

So Ms. Gilbert did what she’d done before: She took a hike, this time with her lover. For the next 10 months, they traveled through Asia, hoping for good news from Felipe’s U.S. immigration attorney. While they waited, Ms. Gilbert studied the concept and history of marriage, through research and firsthand reporting. Among other interesting bits of information she unearths is the (you-could-check-it-out) fact that in its infancy, the church opposed marriage.

She offers up St. Paul as a prime example. “In every possible instance, Paul begged Christians to restrain themselves, to contain their carnal yearnings, to live solitary and sexless lives, on earth as it is in heaven.

” ‘But if they cannot contain,’ Paul finally conceded, ‘then let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn.’ ”

“Which is perhaps,” Ms. Gilbert writes, “the most begrudging endorsement of matrimony in human history. Although it does remind me of the agreement that Felipe and I had recently reached - that it is better to marry than to be deported.”

She began her on-the-ground reporting in Vietnam by quizzing a Hmong grandmother whose marriage had lasted for many decades. Ms. Gilbert’s Western-mindset questions (“Did you know he was special right away? … When did you fall in love with him? … And what do you believe is the secret to a happy marriage?”) are met by the grandmother and the other Hmong wives with looks of incomprehension, incredulity and occasional laughter.

Literally and figuratively, they don’t know where she is coming from. As she puts it, in a phrase that would never even occur to any of them, “Neither the grandmother nor any other woman in that room was placing her marriage at the center of her emotional biography in any way that was remotely familiar to me.”

In comparison, the problem faced by American women, she philosophizes (in italics several pages later) is that “we cannot choose everything simultaneously.” (I’m tempted to write “Duh.”)

From the mountains of North Vietnam, the couple (Felipe is usually there, too, but he doesn’t get many lines) move on to Laos, to Bangkok and finally to Bali, where they had lived when they met. Along the way, Ms. Gilbert provides, in her trademark breezy-to-read prose, a running commentary on what she has learned about marriage through her research and reporting.

A lot of it is interesting, and some of it fascinating, but a whole lot of it goes on a whole lot longer than this reader wished it had. And the words “I,” “me” and “mine” get awful workouts.

While she makes frequent mention, right from the beginning, that her fear of commitment is based on her truly horrible first marriage and the divorce that ended it, she gives no specifics until page 186, and even then it’s not exactly horrendously bad. After a while, I got the feeling that what made the divorce so terrible was that it happened to her, this special person who is so wonderful that only good things should happen to her.

Nevertheless, I need to stress that there is a wealth of interesting information in “Committed.” In researching this book, Ms. Gilbert read far and wide, from the 2005 Rutgers University study of marriage (“Along Together”) to a number of marriage-help books, and chose well which passages or points to quote or to paraphrase. And she pulls interesting observations from a mixed bag of commentators, from Sigmund Freud to Marge Simpson. (But, disappointingly, “Committed” has no notes, no index and no bibliography.)

Ms. Gilbert also has a fine facility for turning an apparently simple anecdote into a meaningful metaphor, as she does with the nice story of what happened to the fine red coat with a fur collar that her grandmother bought while still a single woman. I’ll not spoil your pleasure by giving away the ending.

I will, however, reveal what the subtitle promises, that in the end Felipe does get permission to stay and they do get married in a decidedly low-key ceremony that is almost anti-climactic, especially after such a long buildup.

With all of her books selling well, and “Eat, Pray, Love” having been translated into 30 languages, Ms. Gilbert probably has millions of fans. So my saying that I’m not one of them will not do her any harm. But reading, or listening to, anyone who dominates the dialogue as if by right can be off-putting. My friend, the late Washington-based novelist Ellen Ferber, had a wonderful way of acknowledging that she had been doing all the talking. She would suddenly say, with a big smile, “That’s enough about me. Now what do you think of my hat?”

Ms. Gilbert is a very good writer who could be an even better one if she would talk less about herself. And her hat.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.


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