There's something quentessentially American about Elizabeth Gilbert's winsome 2006 quest memoir Eat, Pray Love. The bestselling book, which details Gilbert's trek through Italy, India and Indonesia, has many ingredients U.S. audiences seem to love: the search for spiritual enlightenment, healing, lasting love, and a great dinner.
While Gilbert doesn't call herself a Christian (she says she's not someone who believes there is one way to God), her book recounts themes common to pilgrim picaresque --despair, indulgence, healing, resolution. I confess, I read the book and found it charming -- on its own terms. Neither Gilbert nor her book deserves what was done to them in the pages of the Washington Post Style section last week.
With the lede, we enter the constantly charted territory of New Age fluff:
They have come from as far as New York and Durham, N.C., their hopes and their hurts in tow, seeking enlightenment and autographs. The line forms nearly two hours before showtime and stretches from the gates of Washington National Cathedral out onto its lawn. The arrivals, most of whom are women, paid as much as $22 each to spend their Friday evening this way.
When all 2,250 make it to their seats inside the sanctuary -- some with views partially obstructed by pillars -- Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the cathedral, welcomes the throng. "It's not quite like this every Sunday," he says. "I wish it would be."
But then, writer Elizabeth Gilbert isn't in the house every Sunday, and this isn't church. Friday's gathering takes place at the great American crossroads of books and buzz, art and personality, life and death.
What does this sentence mean? Who knows? Does it matter?
There are times when glib can be fun -- but this isn't one of them. An event held at the Cathedral, where the speaker is introduced by the Dean, would lead one one to assume that there is a religious hook, however vague. But it's never really clear, though there is plenty of ambiguously religious language (church, cathedral, miracle), what that hook is. At least until near the end, when the writer interviews some attendees. Here's what they say:
"How do you tell somebody, 'Thank you for teaching me how to pray?'" says Fatima Nawaz, 28, a researcher in infectious diseases, who has come from New York.
"I was going through the same experience she went through," including a divorce, says Alesia Balshakova, 29, a lawyer who traveled from Durham, N.C. "I was praying for God to show me the way through, and this book showed up in my life."
It's not clear to whom Nawaz is praying-or how Gilbert taught her to pray. Nor do we find out how "Eat, Pray, Love" changed Balshakova's life. What we see again in these quote is that sort of one size fits all faith, stripped of context and specificity. It's frustrating, though, that Montgomery doesn't ask them more pointed questions that get at why this book was so powerful in their lives.
Interestingly enough, Gilbert seems to reject the mantle of pop culture icon-telling the audience that they are going to have to find a new "spiritual role model" and not accepting a fee for her speaking appearance at the Cathedral. It would have been wonderful if the writer had asked the people he interviewed what they thought of Gilbert's refusal to buy into the role of pop-culture goddess. But he settles for "cute quotes" that reveal nothing beyond the surface.
A cathedral. A clergyman. A pilgrim writer. Sounds like this event had the potential to provide great material for an article that delves into our ongoing search for spiritual answers on the margins as revealed in the runaway success of Gilbert's book.
Once again it appears that Style has won out over substance -- leaving readers confused as to whether, when it comes to religious content, there really is any "there" there. If you want to know, read the book, and judge for yourself.
Picture of Elizabeth Gilbert is taken from Wikimedia Commons