Thursday, 14 May 2015

Book review: Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert (2010)

Although this memoir - in which the author recounts the process of how she screws up the courage to marry a man - is technically a sequel to 2006's wildly successful Eat, Pray, Love, it is in fact more than just that one single thing. The main players are recognisable to readers of the earlier book, of course. There's the protagonist who is the author and there's also Felipe, the man she meets and falls in love with in Bali at the end of the earlier book after having taken a year off her quotidian existence in order to reassemble her life following a disastrous, confidence-shredding divorce.

At the beginning of Committed Elizabeth and Felipe are happily making their life in the US but things unravel fast when border authorities one day tell Felipe that he can no longer just visit the country on 3-month visas any more. The visa was not designed for this kind of indefinite serial usage, they say. Elizabeth and Felipe make a quick calculation and decide to take the advice of border guard Tom and get married. But being a journalist who is also a modern woman with her own ways of thinking about traditional social constructs and about the law Elizabeth then spends the next year or so looking into exactly what marriage means and in the process works out what it means for her.

This sounds fairly tame compared to the outside-the-box approach to life the author recounted in the first book but it's less tame than it sounds, and contains a lot of the same kind of humour the first book gave us in such copious quantities. Gilbert is a genuinely funny woman and it is furthermore a testament to her intellect that she can turn this kind of potentially dry subject matter into an opportunity to make the reader smile and, on occasion, laugh out loud. I found the book a hoot.

There's also something intensely private about someone trying to make their mind up about their own marriage but Gilbert not only finds a way to do this publicly without sounding trite, she also does it without dismissing the importance of the topic. She conscripts generations of writers, as well as family members, public authority figures and friends in the process and in my opinion none of those people would have any reason to complain about their treatment at her hands.

The period of time Gilbert recounts in the book is, as I mentioned, about a year, and during this time she and Felipe live in a number of countries while their visa application proceeds. This is all happening before the first book - which was eventually made into a successful movie as well as making a lot of money by way of publication - became such a success so money is an issue and so they choose to stay in countries where it is possible to live well for small amounts of money. Gilbert takes advantage of opportunities this arrangement throws up by going out and talking with people about marriage as she puts together her personal dossier on the subject. Some kinds of relationships that are not marriage are ignored, but you have to always remember that the only reason marriage became a question for Gilbert to consider is because of the legal requirement. The two people need to get married so that Felipe can stay in the US.

Gilbert's desire to live in the US instead of, say, in Australia - where Felipe has resident status having brought up two children in that country (he is aged in his late 50s) - is predicated on Gilbert's need to be close to family. Particularly, she wants to live close to her sister, who lives in Philadelphia, and Gilbert ends up buying a converted church in the New Jersey countryside even before the visa is formally issued. For a woman in such a hurry, a year seems like a long time, but Gilbert is nothing if not thorough in her researches. It seems she reads everything that has been written on the subject of marriage. What she gives us though is a gem, and another book that anyone who has been having second thoughts about marriage can profitably read. They'll also have a good laugh in the process.

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