COMMITTED: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Viking, 285 pp., $26.95.
Here's my take on Elizabeth Gilbert's last book: "Eat" was good; "Pray" was OK; "Love" lost me. Clearly not everyone felt this way, as 137 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list would indicate. And if you're one of the 11 people in the United States who hasn't read "Eat, Pray, Love," you can hold out for the film this summer with Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco and Billy Crudup.
"Committed" is the sequel, in which Gilbert marries Felipe, the older Brazilian guy who ruined the first book. Ruined, I say, because his appearance in the third section of the memoir marked the narrator's transformation from someone struggling gamely with personal disaster to someone who has met Mr. Perfect in a tropical paradise and has submitted to his worship of her body.
Put it this way - it's not nearly as hard to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse as it is to turn a silk purse into another silk purse. The most interesting memoirs, from Anne Frank's "Diary" to Michael Ryan's "Secret Life," tend to be about doom, escape from doom or at least the serious threat of doom. Rarely are they about beautiful romantic relationships with a few small glitches.
Gilbert knows this, I believe (and apparently discarded one whole draft of the book before arriving at the current version). Wisely, she starts by presenting the closest thing she has to doom: One day in the spring of 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security barred Felipe from entering the United States, took him to jail overnight and then sent him into exile. He could never again return to their home in Philadelphia. Unless . . .
Unless Elizabeth and Felipe got married. Which these two survivors of divorce had vowed never to do.
"Committed" is the story of Gilbert's convincing herself that it really will be OK to marry a man who adores her, whom she adores and with whom she already has been living in bliss for several years. As they wander around Southeast Asia waiting for approval to return home for the wedding, she combs through the history of the institution of marriage and reviews current studies and statistics. She interviews members of traditional cultures; she interrogates experts, friends and relatives. Though it's all presented in highly readable Gilbertese, I had a hard time ginning up much interest.
My strongest reaction was to the section where Gilbert explains her decision not to have children, the deal-breaker in her first marriage. Aside from the fact that she just didn't want a kid, she felt it would interfere with her work as a writer. She quotes a number of women who confirm this view one way or another: "I had my doubts too, but the minute my baby was born, everything else in my life fell away." "Honestly, I sometimes wish I could have all those lost years back." "I never had 'em, honey. And I never missed 'em." Affecting Gilbert most deeply is the knowledge that her mother still resents the career sacrifices she made for her family.
So, you know, I think it's absolutely fine not to have kids, especially if you don't want to. But I don't think it's true that it interferes with your career as a writer. My position would be exactly the opposite, and I'm five kids and eight books into it. It bothers me that no voice quoted says this.
Once the visa is stamped and the couple can return to the States and marry, it turns out that Gilbert, now resigned to marriage, is feeling shy about having a wedding. She quotes a letter written by publicity-shy Anton Chekhov to his fiancee: "I wish we could go straight from the church to Zvenigorod," he pleads. "Or perhaps we could get married in Zvenigorod.' "
"I too wanted to skip all the fuss and go straight to Zvenigorod," says Gilbert, "and I'd never even heard of Zvenigorod! I just wanted to get married as furtively and privately as possibly, perhaps without even telling anyone."
If Gilbert is craving privacy - and the dominance of historical research and reporting over personal storytelling in "Committed" is another sign of that - maybe a return to fiction is in the cards (she's also the author of a collection of stories and a novel). Now she's got 6 million readers to take with her.