It wasn’t all bad – there were some entertaining bits to it. But it was mostly bad. Saturated in self-pity, self-absorbed and boring are a few of the ways I would describe this book.
I’ll start with the first one – self-pity. We find Elizabeth sobbing on the floor of her bathroom in the middle of the night, something, she reveals, she has been getting up to do regularly over the last few months. This is the bathroom in the lovely apartment she shares with her husband in New York. Basically, Elizabeth appears to want to leave a relationship she thought would last forever but can’t work out why she would want to leave. At this stage, I can’t help but feel her pain. Everyone has been in a dysfunctional and unhappy situation that appears to outsiders as an ideal and happy situation. When something that is supposed to be right feels so wrong, it hurts. And it’s difficult to come to terms with. Of course, in these situations it’s only natural to question your own role in this: why can’t I just be happy with this? What have I done to make myself so unhappy? Why can’t I just chill out???
Elizabeth’s divorce is bitter—her husband cannot forgive her for leaving. This too is something anyone can sympathise with. The problem is that we know nothing about her ex-husband and nothing about the relationship. She justifies this by saying that omitting such details is out of respect for her husband. Certainly, this is well-intentioned and honourable, but it leaves a flimsy foundation for readers to understand her current turmoil. In place of this context, we are bombarded with descriptions of her angst, her feelings, her sobbing, and inner conflicts. Her conversations with ‘herself’ and those with God are painful and I found myself cringing whenever she invited us to listen. Is this the American ‘cultural cringe’? Do Americans find this embarrassing? Or is it just me?
This brings us to self-absorption. Elizabeth’s self-absorption drives this book. It’s premised on her looking inward at herself. The subtitle on the cover of the edition I have reads 'One woman’s search for it all'. I would argue that it is in fact one woman’s search for it all for herself. But the fact that this is omitted probably simply means that it is axiomatic. Society is obsessed with navel-gazing—looking inward rather than outward; individualising rather than contextualising. This is, I think, particularly true for American society. Oprah Winfrey is the torchbearer for this type of introspection that is supposed to be good for us. Looking for your inner self will, apparently, solve all your problems.
Let’s now talk about boring. I skipped huge chunks of this book. The first place I did this was when she started giving me a history lesson on Rome. If I wanted to learn about the history of a city I would read a book by a historian.
I’ll admit that I skipped a lot of the parts in which she talked about God. So, the whole chapter on India was a bit of a drag. An example of this is her mind-numbing conversations with the Texan (what was his name?), who was a caricature of a man, teeming with pithy and humorous nuggets of advice. He was reduced to a mouthpiece for wise and grounded advice, and we learnt little about him. This made it difficult for me, as a reader, to like him. I didn’t dislike him either. And that’s the problem –Gilbert did not allow any of her characters to demonstrate any depth. This lack of character was not exclusive to the Texan, but manifest in all other characters too. Her psychologist friend was also reduced to pithy one-liners or sage nuggets of wisdom about how Gilbert should live her life.
Apart from being boring and self-indulgent, this book was at times, offensive—a much more serious charge. I was offended by her simplistic and patronising descriptions of Balinese culture. (The only more difficult language than Balinese is Martian). Yes, the Balinese smile a lot, and their society may be very structured compared to Western societies, but to describe such a complex thing as a social structure in broad sweeping generalisations reeks of Orientalism. Frankly, her desire to spend 3-4 months with a ‘medicine man’ stinks of Orientalism as well. When you look to other cultures and argue that they know better than Western culture because of their ‘authenticity’ and ‘simplicity’, you are being racist. Cultures and societies are complex things, and to describe them purely in contrast with your own is very easy, but it is also potentially dangerous. Why? Because it perpetuates stereotypes rather than admitting that the culture might be quite complex, pluralistic and difficult to articulate.
To Gilbert’s credit, she starts to acknowledge the complexities of Balinese culture halfway into the Balinese section by tracing its history. Importantly, she also acknowledges her ignorance by admitting that her understanding of Balinese people was simplistic and naïve until she began researching about the island’s past. Acknowledging your ignorance is important for a writer because it informs the reader that what they are reading is subjective. Apart from some naiveties and ignorance, I think it is also crucial for a writer to reveal a lot more about themselves in order to make their stories believable. Gilbert reveals a lot about herself, to be sure. She even partly divulges her masturbation habits—this is rarely spoken about by women in autobiographies.
However, baring one’s soul is not the same as reflecting on how your position in society affects your writing. It is crucial for a writer to let the readers know that your values and beliefs probably impact the way you view and experience the world. As far as I’m concerned, failure to do so is dishonest. Her experience in Italy, for example, for me was simply unbelievable. I have been to Italy and I certainly did not gain weight. If I had been there any longer (than 3 weeks) I probably would have lost weight. Eating out in Italy is extremely expensive. Everything is expensive in Italy! Somehow she managed to rent a unit on her own, eat out all the time, take lessons in Italian, and go on short trips without mentioning that this is something only the extremely privileged can do. Of course, I realise she is a middle-class white American woman, but it seemed to me as I read the book, that she didn’t realise it. More significant though was her failure to acknowledge how her middle-class existence may have influenced the experiences she was able to have in Italy, as well as in India and Bali. Perhaps we were meant to assume her middle-class existence, but her neglect to situate herself as such was disappointing and I lost some respect for the value of her story. Certainly she didn’t completely neglect it—I think the she briefly mentioned it at the beginning. Her travels were in fact funded by the publisher for the book that emerged from it.