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Read August 4th.

After being pleasantly surprised by Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, a book which has been fundamentally misrepresented by the forces which made it into a bestseller and a bad Julia Roberts movie, I decided it was worth seeing if her second would also be better than one expects of A Bestselling Memoir, Subtype: Vaguely Inspirational.

And it is. Gilbert and her lover, who had both gone through nasty divorces, were cohabiting cheerfully enough in a bi-continental relationship sustained by her lover's ninety-day work visas. The U.S. government does not like people to do this indefinitely, and deported him. (She says that the legal word is not deportation, but that no one has ever been able to tell her a different word that would cover it.) This meant they needed to get married if he ever wanted to be able to go back to the U.S., a country in which he had substantial business interests, and out of which she did not want to move permanently.

So, facing what registered emotionally as a governmentally-sponsored shotgun wedding, she decided to do a whole bunch of research about marriage, past, present, and future, and see if she could shake her persistent divorce-caused phobia.

The thing I appreciate about Gilbert's writing here is that it has the same strength her last book had: she admits cheerfully that she is not qualified. She is not a historian, she is specifically not a historian specializing in matrimony, she will give you the names of the books she read and you have her permission to fault her research methods all you like, because this is not an academic text. This is the author, specifically, as a private person, trying to cope with marriage, the public institution, and using anything she can find to help herself do it. She also cheerfully admits that the things that frighten her and interest her about marriage, and the method she finally found to reconcile herself to it, are totally individual and almost certainly do not apply to anyone else. And when she stumbles across giant questions, as, of course, she does every other second, she does not claim to answer them for anyone but her, and sometimes she doesn't have answers for herself either.

So if you're looking for answers to those questions-- you know, the ones like 'why should I, personally, get married?' or 'what role does the patriarchy play in how I view the involvement of the state in marriage?' or 'why in the name of Margaret Sanger do people try so hard to defend something called 'traditional marriage' as an institution when as far as anyone can tell it is less than a century old?', well, this book is specifically not about answering that. It does, however, bring up those questions, and it's a pretty comprehensive list of questions, especially for female-gendered persons who have significant qualms about financial and personal autonomy (qualms which are statistically totally justified and worth consideration).

Gilbert ranges over her own past, the lives of women she knows, and the lives of her extended family in her attempt at reconciliation. Marriage for her is not only undesirable at the start of this book, but a force intruding where it doesn't belong, a symbol of people telling her and her partner that they have to do xyz or they cannot be socially acceptable. She always knows she will do it: she really doesn't want her lover to lose his business, she really doesn't want to move to Australia. What she needs to figure out is how to do it and maintain her self-respect, so that she doesn't feel like they've sold out, and so the whole thing doesn't damage their relationship.

And I have a lot of sympathy for that. That's a real problem, because it does sometimes feel as though when you get married they send you a list of Things People Assume About You Now in the mail (actually, they do, if you are female it begins with the shape of your name on the envelopes) -- and I'm in a same-sex marriage, where theoretically one would think it might be harder for people to make that list. I mean, I'm all for marriage, I desperately want my rights about it and I got married at eighteen and I'm delighted, but I look at the state of marriage as a civil contract every so often and boggle, you know? She is right to fear the things she fears.

So this book doesn't have much in the way of structure, in some ways, because she's wandering from theme to theme and coping strategy to coping strategy (and physically all over Southeast Asia doing miles and miles of paperwork), but I don't see that as a flaw, because this is not a tidy narrative she's in, here. The point is that she doesn't want it to be a tidy little narrative. And there's a fair bit that's funny in it, and a fair bit I sympathize with (I completely understand her total inability, after having gone through said mountains of paperwork, to be okay with the concept of having to organize anything at all by way of a wedding ceremony). The problems with the book are, of course, that she isn't a historian. There are always those moments where, if this is a field one reads in, it could have gone a little deeper. There is the urge to send her a list of further secondary sources. And there is the urge to suggest that she not try to make mental models of the state of marriage in, say, Vietnam, even if she is standing in Vietnam, because she doesn't speak the language and is there for like a month and is operating from a position of very well-meaning and privileged ignorance. Fortunately there is not very much of that. Also, there is a turn of phrase once which annoys me somewhat, in which she says that she thinks that just about everybody attempts some kind of deeply intimate monogamous bonding at some point whether it is sexual or not, and I'm like, no, I have never ever tried to be monogamous and neither have lots of people I know and it does not affect the intimacy of my bonding; you don't know very many poly people, do you, O Author.

But overall, this continues the theme: Elizabeth Gilbert, Better Books Than I Expected. Which is a good thing, and I'll take it.
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I read this for three reasons:

-- I was in an airport bookstore
-- I occasionally have an inexplicable sudden urge to read best-sellers
-- Ursula Vernon, who is a sensible person, rather liked it.

... I also rather liked it.

I think a lot of the hate about this book has been based on the concept that it is, in some way, travel writing. If it were a travel book, it would be really inexcusable, because yeah, the author is going off to Italy and India and Indonesia and does not know that much about the cultures involved and the issues and the histories; yeah, she has a lot of money and privilege and the ability to go off for a year and travel and write about it and sell the book in advance, even. If this were a travel book, it would be aggravating spiritual tourism.

It's not. It's an introspective memoir about the aftermath of a really terrible set of life crises and the way the author pulled herself out of a nasty bout of clinical depression. One way she does it is meditation, and she freely admits that she knows nothing about the history of meditation as a spiritual practice. I do under most circumstances find myself annoyed at people who go off and do yoga for a week and then something ayurvedic for another week and then go off to Bali to study traditional Balinese medicine, because it seems kind of dilettantish.

Except that we are talking here about someone who was trying to save her own life, literally, who was at the 'call my friends and get them to take away my sharp implements' phase. I do not blame people for a buffet-style approach to spirituality if that is what they need to do to keep on breathing-- and she does seem to have tackled her depression with anything and everything she could think of. Meds? Yes. Exercise? Yes. Positive self-talk? Yes. Therapy? Yes. And what worked for her was taking a year and going off and doing exactly what she wanted to do, which, since a lot of her problem was that she'd been defining herself by the men in her life for decades, was a major and difficult thing.

Most people do not have the resources to go do this in continents they don't live in. But the overall arc of this book actually is a woman learning that she can make it on her own, and she can devote herself to things that matter to her even if they seem fruitcake-y to other people (and yes, going to an ashram is A Bit Much in my personal opinion, but at least she decided for herself to do it, and worked hard at it). And I have this suspicion that that arc is one reason this book gets looked down on so much, because I think that arc scares people. Notice how much one hears about her Meeting A Guy at the end, for example, and how little one hears about how adamant she was to maintain a life of her own, how careful she was to try to preserve the autonomy she'd gained while keeping the freedom to go into a relationship. And one hears almost nothing about one of the principal reasons behind her first marriage breaking up being that she desperately, violently did not want children.

So yeah. I could wish this were more complex and nuanced about class and race and religion, I could wish it were an actual look at the places she goes to, I could wish it weren't privileged as fuck. But it's intelligently written, it's sincerely intended, and she never claims she knows anything at all about those places and issues; in fact she repeatedly states the exact opposite. As a book about the inside of its author's head, this totally does not suck.


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