If you are a man, chances are the name Elizabeth Gilbert will not ring even the tiniest bell down a single corridor of your mind.
If you are a woman, however, especially one of the book-group persuasion, the klaxons are probably going off. Elizabeth Gilbert? The pasta-eating, Ashram-visiting, Indonesian-medicine-man-consulting, Brazilian-lover-bedding, bravely independent writer? Yep, that’s the one.
To a small subset of readers, Gilbert’s 2006 blockbuster memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” established her as one of the most infuriatingly self-indulgent chroniclers of modern feminist sensibilities imaginable.
To Oprah Winfrey and millions more — over 7 million, if you count the number of copies sold — Gilbert is a heroine, a joyful, quirky, insouciant personification of the great feminine struggle to achieve balance, enlightenment and happiness.
“Eat, Pray, Love” recounted Gilbert’s foreign adventures as she sought to shake off the misery of divorce and the banality of the New York suburbs. By wonderful happenstance, her publisher paid her an advance to write about her recovery.
The author spent four months in Italy, where she luxuriated in the cuisine and language. She had a stint in India, where she chanted, sweated and meditated under the eye of a guru.
And then she went to Bali, where she bicycled about, chatted with colorful locals and eventually fell into the arms of a dishy Brazilian expatriate 17 years her senior.
As the book ended, readers were sure that Gilbert would never complicate her relationship with “Felipe” by marrying him. It’s what she thought, herself.
Reader, she married him anyway, in 2007. It was that, or she’d either have to renounce him or live abroad. She chose matrimony, a decision that apparently scandalized those of her fans who most warmly responded to her message of shackle-free female empowerment.
Now Gilbert is back. Her new book, “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage,” arrived in bookstores on Tuesday. In its pages, she tries to explain how and why she overcame her suffocating dread of matrimony in order to tie the knot a second time.
Like “Eat, Pray, Love,” this latest installment of Gilbert’s personal life is full of chatty anecdotes, faintly shocking intimate disclosures and witty conversations in exotic foreign settings. But its pretensions are greater.
Gilbert does not simply relate how she and her lover, whose real name is Jose Nunes, overcame their reluctance (he, too, was divorced and resolute), but drapes their private drama around the larger history of marriage.
She explores in a very light way the manner in which matrimony has changed in Western society. She ponders the mystery of compatibility. She dilates on the marriages she has observed in her own family. And, in the liveliest bits of the book, she quizzes mystified villagers in Vietnam and Laos about their marriage practices and preferences.
Why Vietnam and Laos, you ask? Well, that’s where she happened to be, killing time and writing, while Nunes was collecting documents to satisfy U.S. immigration authorities. The couple succeeded, as we know, and now lives in Frenchtown, New Jersey.
The real question is whether Gilbert’s massive fan base will be moved by her exposition — or even remotely as excited by her concluding and rather adolescent realization that marriage, far from being some sort of tyrannical arrangement imposed on innocents by society, is in fact an institution that reflects people’s propensity to pair off, and seek enduring intimacy with one another.
“Perhaps I’ve had this story deliciously backwards the whole time,” Gilbert writes in the final pages of “Committed,” after 270-odd pages of talking about how repressive and irrelevant she finds the institution.
It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for her, though. Elizabeth Gilbert was as surprised as anybody when “Eat, Pray, Love” became a sensation. To shoot to that level of celebrity — 7 million copies! — must be as vertiginous as it is gratifying. Whatever you write next, surely you’re excruciatingly conscious of the expectations of your ravenous fan base. It’ll be interesting to see whether “Committed” satisfies those hungry hearts.
Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.