Monday, November 21, 2011

Committed: A Love Story, by Elizabeth Gilbert

I have to eat some crow here. This book is, for the most part, good.

The first few pages seemed to be fulfilling my dire predictions: Gilbert states in all seriousness that her divorce (which involved her falling out of love with her husband while he wished to stay married) was as nasty as a divorce not involving physical violence can possibly be. That it could not have been more emotionally traumatic than it was.

I really should not try to quantify someone else’s suffering, or play misery poker. And Gilbert and her husband were going through this in New York, which has draconian divorce laws. But if you have not experienced the massive, all-consuming humiliation of being sexually and emotionally betrayed, of learning that the person to whom you linked your entire future ceased so entirely to respect you that he basically used you as a laundry service in between his visits to his One True Love, for thirteen months, then I would humbly posit that you do not know how emotionally traumatic a violence-free conclusion to a marriage can be.

(The adverb overuse in that sentence is amazing.)

Okay, that said, once I grumped my way past those first few pages, I found a book that was smart, funny (I laughed out loud many times), and far less solipsistic than I expected. Although it’s definitely a memoir, Gilbert is searching for answers and information beyond herself and her own experience – that’s the point of the book, that her only personal experience of marriage is bad and she is trying to look at it from a more universal perspective. And I think she succeeds.

The impetus for the book is that Gilbert, who never wants to get married again, falls in love with a man who is not an American citizen (and who also has been married once, had it end badly, and does not want to get married again). The citizenship becomes a major issue once they attempt to live together in the United States, and eventually it becomes clear that they have to get married. So Gilbert writes a book attempting to talk herself into marriage.

Most of the book is a very interesting discussion of the history of marriage and its meaning in different cultures. Gilbert also adds a good deal of information about what (according to various counselors and psychotherapists) makes a good marriage and what signals the breakdown of one. That chapter is the one my mother-in-law was pointing me toward, and though in my case it was the equivalent of locking the barn door (and the horse is the one who needed to read it anyway), I actually think it would be really good reading for anyone entering into a serious phase of a relationship.

Unfortunately, Gilbert is too concerned with her readers’ sensibilities on the subject of gay marriage: you should never, ever, no matter how semi-facetiously, apologize for bringing up gay marriage and the fact that you are for it. If I had been writing this book, the section on this would have read, “Of course gay marriage should be legal. That is so obvious I cannot believe I had to say it. If you are a horrible bigot obsessed with policing the sex lives of strangers, what are you doing with this book anyway? Were you hoping to get details of my sex life, you prurient hypocrite?” This may be why Elizabeth Gilbert has a publishing contract and I do not.

Also unfortunately, Gilbert is incapable of simply stating that she does not want children and leaving it at that. She feels compelled to justify herself by saying that she was too committed to her career as a writer (not true: you've just said that you don't want kids, not that you made the agonizing decision not to have them based on your perception of your limitations) and spends a couple paragraphs generally insulting all mothers and women who want kids. I'm amazed that the incredibly misogynistic statement that all the women she knows go into raptures at the sight of babies, while she goes into raptures at the sight of used bookstores, and the two things are clearly mutually exclusive, made it to the final print version. Yikes.

The above two things are irritating, but they comprise small sections of the book, so you can eyeroll your way past them and get back to the interesting stuff pretty quickly.

The last chapter, in which Gilbert and her partner finally do get married, made me cry. She throws in a dog, and the fact that in many medieval marriage paintings the couples were depicted with a dog between them because that is the ultimate symbol of fidelity, and that is pretty much a recipe for waterworks around here. But it was also very well written, without being sappy.

So, like I said, I’m eating some crow here. I don’t know if the experience of having to back down on a vow she made loudly and publicly humbled Gilbert enough to make her an excellent guide this time around, but whatever happened, it worked for me. I believe I will actually set aside this book and come back to it in the (of course right now I think it highly unlikely) event that I consider getting married again. And if I do, I, like Gilbert, will include two elements that my first one lacked: a pre-nup, and dogs present at the ceremony. It will be a little harder to go wrong with that beginning.

Next up: The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander. I'm very excited about this one: I like Alexander a lot and am in the mood for some serious history.


  1. Wow, good post. Really? I actually kind of want to read Gilbert now--and Eat, Pray, Love sounded so stupid. Damn.

  2. Oh, I'm still going to avoid Eat, Pray, Love. I know people who have read both and liked this, while finding EPL deeply obnoxious. But yeah, I was thoroughly surprised, and now kind of interested in the stuff she wrote before EPL, which is not autobiographical.

  3. Misery poker. Love it. Your writing is wonderful and I really appreciate the laughs. I need them today. Thank you.

  4. Heh, I didn't come up with the term "misery poker" - it was the college game of one-up-man-ship over who has more work to do. I have no recollection of who first coined the phrase; it may have been one of those pre-existing things that we all inherited along with the dorm furniture. But it remains useful.

    So glad to help with some laughter!

  5. Okay, I read it, and you're right. It is good, and I've already started recommending it, with the caveat that one should read past chapter 1 (generally annoying) and 2 (residual annoyance from 1 and some unfortunate ethnography). I agree that she shouldn't apologize for advocating gay marriage, but she apologizes for a lot of things she believes, and while that seems odd, maybe it keeps a conservative reading.

    I thought several times, "well, I've never heard anyone discuss marriage this way," and that way was generally insightful and helpful. So I am glad I read it, and therefore that you convinced me to try it!