I read far less on this summer break than I ever have on a holiday. Hello small children. Holidays have always been synonymous with books for me, particularly when I used to work in magazines. In fact, during those years, holidays used to be specifically a mag-free zone. There were two reasons for this. Firstly and most obviously, I associated magazines with work. I needed to shift gears.
But also, when I was editing, my concentration span was very short. About the length of your average article. After about 900 words I lost the plot quite literally. it was only on holidays that my concentration span expanded long enough for a book to hold my attention.
What was unusual about this holiday is that I didn’t read a novel. I read non-fiction. There were a couple of books I started but didn’t finish (Malcolm Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw and also The Outliers – still dipping in and out of those) but the book I did read cover to cover was Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest release, Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace With Marriage.
If you – like me and about a billion others – really enjoyed her last book, Eat, Pray, Love then you will have been waiting for What Comes Next. This is it. But it’s different.
Sure, there is still her lovely conversational tone and much soul searching. But there’s a lot of other stuff as well (gee, reading that last sentence? Book reviewers don’t have to watch their backs – their jobs are safe from me).
When we last saw Elizabeth, she had met “Felipe” who was the centre of the ‘Love’ part of the book’s title and of the journey she began after a shocking divorce. After finishing the book, I immediately Googled Elizabeth to try and find out what happened with her and Felipe. This book is what happened.
In short, the couple are forced to get married to to immigration restrictions that come to a head in a rather dramatic fashion one day when Felipe is arrested as they try to return to the US from a holiday. The only way for him to be allowed back in the country is for them to marry and even then, there are many months of paperwork and legalities ahead. Liz and Felipe spend those months pretty much backpacking through south east Asia while Liz sifts animatedly through her angst about committing to an institution that didn’t work out so well for her the last time she tried it.
As a review in the New Yorker says…
Keeping things in perspective is not Gilbert’s strong suit. This is why she goes on so many trips and does so much information gathering: she wants to understand how her fellow-humans have resolved the issues that torment her.
So we should not be surprised that when Gilbert found herself on the verge of a second wedding, in a state of dread, she decided “to put a little effort into unraveling the mystery of what in the name of God and human history this befuddling, vexing, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is.” She consulted books and scholars. She interviewed Hmong grandmothers in the mountains of Vietnam about their level of marital satisfaction. She went to see her grandmother.
Gilbert is understandably alarmed by what she learns. She is most affecting in “Committed” when she is contemplating the marriages of the women in her own family. Her grandmother Maude was considered ineligible for marriage, because she had a harelip, and she spent her youth independent and happy, getting a better education than her siblings and travelling from her home in Minnesota to the mountains of Montana.
During this period of giddy freedom, Maude made her own money and bought herself a glamorous coat with a fur collar. “If you ask my grandmother today about that purchase, her eyes will still flutter in absolute pleasure,” Gilbert writes. But then Maude got married after all, and moved in with her husband’s family of “severe Swedish immigrants” on their farm. Her days of travel and adventure were over, and her life became dominated by cooking, cleaning, and giving birth to seven children.
Grandma Maude’s savings were quickly depleted by the endless expenses of the farm, and when her oldest daughter was born Maude cut up her special coat to make baby clothes. “What my grandmother did with her fine coat (the loveliest thing she would ever own) is what all the women of that generation (and before) did for their families and their husbands and their children,” Gilbert writes. “They cut up the finest and proudest parts of themselves and gave it all away. They repatterned what was theirs and shaped it for others.”
“Committed” is an unfurling of Gilbert’s profound anxiety about reëntering a legally binding arrangement that she does not really believe in. All this ambivalence, expressed in her high-drama prose, can be a lot to handle. (One generally doesn’t indulge another person’s emotional processing at this length unless the jabbering is likely to conclude with sex.) Ultimately, Gilbert is clear about what she, like most people, wants: everything. We want intimacy and autonomy, security and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills.
But we can’t have it. Gilbert understands this, yet she tries to convince herself and her readers that she has found a loophole. She tells herself a familiar story, that her marriage will be different. And she is, of course, right—everyone’s marriage is different. But everyone’s marriage is a compromise.
You don’t have to be married to enjoy this book. And while all the angst can be hard going at times (occasionally, I just wanted to say JUST MARRY THE GUY OR NOT WILL YOU?) if you liked that conversational self-analysis on which Eat, Pray, Love was built, you’ll love this book.
There are many nodding moments, if you know what I mean.
OK, so what did YOU read this summer or what are you reading now? Feel free to upload cover pics.