Here's a bookI never thought I'd be reading. I have in fact done my fair share of all these things during the course of my life, which is why I went to see the film when it first came out a few years ago. But I didn't like it, and it completely put me off reading the book. I picked it up just a few days ago when a friend who'd been staying with me left it in the house. And I found I liked it very much indeed.
Before I get into reviewing it, a little preamble. I have always tended to compartmentalise my life, which has been rather long and very varied. As a result, I have numerous friends, but they fall into different groups. So I have my theatre friends, some of whom I've known since my childhood because my parents were in the theatre. Then there are my academic friends, met during my thirty or so years in various universities, my blogging friends, most of whom I've never met but feel I know anyway, and people I've just got to know because we lived close by or were friends of friends. And then there are my meditating friends, many of whom I first met forty years ago when I learned to meditate and fairly soon afterwards became a teacher. Though I wouldn't say these groups never overlap, I've learned over the years that many of the non-meditators are not in the least bit interested in what I can only call the spiritual side of my life. It's fine if you tell them about the practical effects of meditation -- relaxation, clarity of thought etc -- but mention God and they all look very sour and scornful.
So for me, reading this memoir was a rare treat. There can be few people who don't know about Elizabeth Gilbert's decision, after a messy divorce and a failed love affair, to spend a year doing three things on her own and just for herself. That meant Rome, to learn Italian and eat delicious food, India to meditate in an Ashram, and Bali to meet up with an ancient healer and of course finally, though not part of the plan, to meet a gorgeous Brazilian who she would eventually marry.
Liz Gilbert is a professional writer and journalist, and she writes in a delightfully readable way. But what I liked most about the book was her honesty -- about her own failings, her moments of unrealistic fantasy, her self doubt, her struggles to understand herself and to overcome the grief and rage that was a legacy of the unhappy past few years. If this sounds as if it might be grim, I can assure you it's not. It's often very funny, but also often very wise. Liz never pretends she has any answers, but she recounts her struggles to find them and the solutions that have worked for her without any attempt to preach.
Obviously with my own background I was particularly interested by the middle section in which she stays in the ashram of an Indian female guru. Having done the same thing myself quite a few times -- though in a different ashram of a different guru -- this was bound to grab me. And having practised meditation for so many years it was fascinating to read of Liz's downs and ups in her attempts to get a grip on it all, the miseries of feeling like a failure at it, the agonies of dealing with all the stuff that got stirred up, and the rare but astonishingly wonderful moments where suddenly everything worked and the experiences were -- well, beyond words, really, though she manages to find some pretty adequate ones.
It was interesting to read, on wikipedia, extracts from some of the early reviews of the book. Most critics seems to have been bemused and turned off by the ashram section ( "narcissistic New Age reading", "this silliness") but that's par for the course -- if you don't relate to that sort of thing, you're bound to feel like that. And yes, of course, as other critics pointed out, Liz was able to make this journey because she had a considerable amount of financial backing -- one reviewer felt that it offered "no real solutions for the astronomically high tariffs—both financial and social—that exclude all but the most fortunate among us from participating". Well yes, but I suppose you could say that about any travel book, and that's really what this is, though some of the journeys are being taken internally rather than externally.
Anyway, I loved every minute of it, and it made me long to go to Rome, India and Bali, all of which I've been lucky enough to visit, though I'd hope not to gain 22 pounds from eating pasta, as Liz did, and I doubt if I'd be coming back with a Brazilian husband.
Anybody out there read it? What did you think?