My experience with memoirs is not as extensive as my experience with fiction. Sure, I’d read and loved Life with Sudden Death by my professor Michael Downing. I’d dabbled in some autobiographical graphic novels (Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Craig Thompson’s Blankets come to mind), but they were the exception rather than the rule. Somewhere along the line though, I found myself becoming open to stories of people and not just stories of characters. Now I have a whole new genre to explore, and my to-read list is teeming with reality.
The memoirs I’ve seen seem to fall into three categories: memoirs of extraordinary people, memoirs of people with extraordinary experiences, or memoirs of people who write extraordinarily about the ordinary. I think Eat, Pray, Love is a little bit of all three. It got under my skin, which I’ll blame in equal parts on Elizabeth Gilbert’s language and neuroses.
It didn’t hurt that I was totally enamored of Gilbert before I began, but she won me over anyway. Her authorial presence is charming and self-deprecating, a warmth that bursts out of the pages. She plays and paints with words, turning real people into characters who are truly funny and larger than life. I loved her descriptions of food in Italy and the anthropological observations of Balinese culture. These parts of her journey seemed accessible, something I could one day experience. (I took Italian in college with the hope of going abroad to Bologna, but life had other plans.) India, though. I’m still not sure how I feel about India. India seemed both out of reach and immediately attainable.
Faith is an intensely personal thing. Some aspects of it—both my own faith and other people’s—make me uncomfortable. Still, I had an urge to try meditation as I read. I owe this impulse completely to Gilbert’s ease in writing about her spirituality and, more importantly, her reasons behind it. She named some of my crazy as her own: “My hypersensitive awareness of time’s speed led me to push myself to experience life at a maximum pace.” and “Born with the itch, the mad and relentless urge to understand the workings of existence.” Alongside her, I envied Sean’s Da, the Irish dairy farmer, who tells his pro-meditation progeny: “I have a quiet mind already, son.”
I know Eat, Pray, Love has a lot of detractors. It’s to be expected with anything wildly successful. Maybe I’m so far behind that I’m past the trend and the backlash, but nothing bothered me overly much. I didn’t care how perfect the people she encountered were or how neatly her adventures wrapped into stories. I didn’t mind when she sometimes veered into too-cute territory. I wasn’t jealous that she had the means to write this book in the first place. To all of those objections, I say this: she’s a writer and she’d been writing for years before she undertook this book. There are ways to place yourself into situations that will turn into good stories. Of course, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes and around the edges, but a person’s experiences live firmly in the middle, through a hazy lens of perception.
I’m glad I finally got around to Eat, Pray, Love. It was exhausting in some places, but it was ultimately illuminating. I think that’s why memoir is such a popular genre. We’re curious about other people and how they deal with the cards life has dealt them, but mostly, we read their stories to learn about ourselves. I, for one, am all about that. So bring on those true stories! Open the floodgates! Après Eat, Pray, Love, the deluge.