Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia stars Liz Gilbert, a successful career woman locked away in the remote castle of a failed marriage. Rather than waiting to be saved, she sets out on a quest for self-actualization: eating her heart whole in Italy, reaching enlightenment in India, and rescuing a friend in Bali before stumbling upon her Prince Charming and living Happily Ever After. Across the journey, she meets comedic relief in the form of Richard, her trusty steed in India, and Wayan, an amiable healer able to cure a tough urinary tract infection with a “brown juice … that stank like corpse” (299). Through the ups and the downs, Gilbert is able to charm readers with her feminine virtues: consistent humility, piety, and sexual modesty – with a finely tuned wit to match. In total, Gilbert’s memoir is nothing short of a fairytale for the modern-day woman.
However, Gilbert’s story is not sprinkled with fairy dust from the outset. Rather, the first two sections of her journey are grounded in a reality that is gritty yet inspiring. She is an independent woman who encounters difficulty in assuming the housewife role expected of her. The depression she experiences upon having her heart broken while enduring a divorce surpasses Rapunzel weeping in a tower. Gilbert writes: “I’d sat on the floor of my bedroom for many hours, trying very hard to talk myself out of cutting into my arm with a kitchen knife” (50). Moreover, when she decides to heal herself through a year-long odyssey of self-discovery, she does so with her own resources, independently financed by a successful writing career. Born into humble beginnings (although I live a hop, skip, and a leap away from her hometown which is quite urban and features few tree farms), she is a self-made woman who decides to purify her life from the distracting influence of men and take an adventure alone with her thoughts and wishes.
This is the kind of tale I want to push into the hands of the fifth-grade girls in my Tunbridge service-learning classroom (or rather, wish for them to read once they’re old enough to understand the mature content). At eleven years old, the boys have already gotten pushy – I mean this both literally and figuratively. The other day, a girl sat in a chair reading while a boisterous young man tried to earn her attention. She ignored him, only pausing from her book to ask, “Why are you standing so close to me?” He denied that he was and she replied, “Your knee is touching my knee. Back up.” He gave her a playful push and left her alone. I silently applauded her gall and hoped she would maintain that air of civil irreverence throughout the rest of her formative years.
Yet, the ending portion of Gilbert’s journey in Bali takes on an unrealistic tone that I would not want diluting the expectations of my young fifth graders. From the moment she arrives, Gilbert rides a wave of good luck that is simply improbable beyond belief. A borderline senile medicine man recalls her from years prior, she finds a rental property that resembles Eden without getting ripped off, a healer cures her terrible infection with some herbs, and lastly, she stumbles into the arms of a man who wants to love her selflessly forever. He is overwhelmingly warm and affectionate, declaring early on: “I recognize you don’t love me yet the way I love you, but the truth is that I don’t really care … You can decide to feel however you want to, but I love you and I will always love you” (311). He is the perfect feminist man, caring solely for her needs, and at the end they decide they can work out a life together in America, Australia, Brazil and Bali. Gilbert gets her cake and eats it too; a resolution saccharine enough to undermine the humanity of the rest of the memoir, reducing Eat, Pray, Love to an idyllic tale about the pursuit of Happily Ever After.