The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Once a cultural phenomenon crosses over from novelty to cliche to the subject of reflexive eye rolling, it’s hard to remember what was so appealing about it in the first place. So let’s go back in time to 2006, when Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of her year of exploring countries whose names begin with the letter “I” in the name of self-actualization and healing from a bad divorce, actually seemed like a good idea instead of shorthand for “white privilege: thirtysomething American woman division.” Martha Bayne reviewed the book for the Reader and had this to say: “It’s to Gilbert’s great credit that by the end of it I didn’t totally hate her tall, thin, blond guts.”
Bayne is not uncritical—”It’s also, by definition, a selfish project. Is there anything more boring than hearing about someone else’s spiritual quest?”—but rereading her review is also a reminder of why Eat, Pray, Love inspired so many women to follow their bliss, or at least fantasize about it. Gilbert, she writes, “is a funny, frank, self-deprecating narrator”— which is far more than can be said for most of the authors of the many copycat magazine articles who tried desperately to imitate Gilbert’s success.
The key, Bayne decides, is that Gilbert is comfortable with her own limitations. “At best, in moments of ecstasy,” Bayne writes, “she sounds like she’s got hold of some good acid.” But then she continues:
Weirdly, though, it’s this fundamental failure of language to capture her communion with divinity—a failure she’s well aware of—that gives the book power. There’s no shortage of writers who’ve twisted themselves into knots over the existence of God—Mark Twain and Graham Greene spring to mind. But Gilbert, open and trusting, is the antithesis of someone like the dark, ironic Greene. Her happiness is so dorky and sincere that you almost can’t help but believe.
It’s nice to remember what an engaging book Eat, Pray, Love was, before overpopularity ruined it.