Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: Committed


*A quick disclaimer before I begin: I love Elizabeth Gilbert.  I love her the way that people tend to love their favorites: unconditionally, irrationally, beyond concrete specifics or reasoning.  Therefore, I cannot write anything critical about her.  I just can’t.  So although I am positive there are things about this book that could’ve been executed better, I didn’t see those and I won’t be commenting on them.  This is not a critical book review; this is a fan explaining their overwhelming love for an author.
 
Now that we’re all on the same page, on to the review:

I must start this by saying exactly why it is that I love Elizabeth Gilbert so irrationally.  Although I referenced this growing attraction when I read Eat, Pray, Love (henceforth referred to as E,P,L) last year, my love and understanding of the reasons for that love has grown exponentially since then and requires further explanation.

I love her because she reminds me of my undergraduate college.  My college, which I also hold intensely passionate and unreasonable admiration for, was the kind of place where you would often find yourself engaged in intense, amazingly stimulating conversation with people who are astoundingly intelligent, well spoken, articulate, creative and passionate.  These conversations, due to the nature of the parties involved, were meandering and varied, covering a large number of vaguely related topics and often lasted for hours- sometimes split up over several consecutive meetings.  And I loved them with the kind of fierce, soul-defining passion that can permanently alter a person.

Reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s books- thus far- has been like having those conversations.  It’s sitting down in a peacefully lit, sunny little coffee house and talking to a friend whose intelligence and understanding absolutely floors you.  And why does it floor you?  Because in the midst of all that intelligence and passion there is a distinct lack of the qualities that unfortunately tend to come packaged with those: condescension, patronization, haughtiness or arrogance. 

This is not a woman who is educating you, lecturing you or in any other way talking down to you.  This is a dear old friend who is not only brilliant but also warm, comforting and welcoming.  It’s someone who you’ve known for years and who still overwhelms you with such a flood of positive emotion every time you see them that you can’t understand why you don’t see them more often save for the fact that they’re always working or traveling or taking care of their family or keeping up with their bounty of activities or just, you know, living life.  But every time you see them you’re reminded that they are one of the absolutely coolest people you know and you can’t help but thank god that they’re your friend.

My dear friend Vanessa whom I’ve just had a soul-nursing weekend with falls into this category as well, by the way.  And I was discussing this book with her while she was here.  And it was sandwiched in one of those conversations I was talking about.  So I’m not just reminiscing about college here.

So by now you will have already correctly assumed that I loved this book.  I loved it in my typical "I’ve highlighted so many passages and sentences and ideas that there’s not a single non-yellowed page in this damned thing" sort-of way.  I love it in the “that’s exactly what I said!” sort-of way that I experienced so many times with E,P,L.  I love it in the “thank you so much for addressing that- I was afraid you were going to leave it out for a second” kind-of way that she does so well.  I love it in the “how do you do that?  How do you sum up something so profound so eloquently?” sort of way.  I love it in the way that makes me feel compelled to become a college professor on marriage and family just so I can assign this book.

It occurs to me that I should probably make a quick note about what the hell the bloody thing is about, huh?  I’ll let Elizabeth Gilbert herself sum it up for you: “This entire book- every single page of it- has been an effort to search through the complex history of Western marriage until I could find some small place of comfort in there for myself.”  That sums it up better than I possibly could.

She does explore what seems like the entirety of the history of marriage and references facts from what sounds like intimidatingly large numbers of massively heavy volumes on the subject.  The critical part of me wants to read those books myself before accepting what she relays on face value, but I have no reason not to trust her and that’s not really the point anyway.  Nor is it where this book- or she- shines.

No, this book shines in the same ways that E,P,L did: in her personal stories revealing her life and the lives of the people she encounters.  The most overwhelmingly touching sections were those exploring the marriage histories of the people who had the biggest impact on her: her parents and her grandparents.  Her mother and grandmother are clearly the centerpieces of these, in her mind, and the way that she describes their choices, the sacrifices they made, and the paths they went down are hauntingly beautiful.  Honestly, her grandmother’s wine-colored coat with the real fur collar which she purchased with her own money and later on disassembled in order to make a dress for her daughter will stay with me for the rest of my life as the single greatest description of the deeply mysterious losses a woman suffers in marriage.

Which isn’t to say that she’s making the case that marriage is bad.  She admits that she wants to think that, mainly because she’s a self-proclaimed cynical divorcee being forced into a second marriage so that her Brazilian-born boyfriend will be allowed to live with her in the US.  But she somehow always manages to balance her own judgments with the realities of the lives she describes.  None of these people- not a single one of them- is used as an anecdote of a bad marriage or a good one.  All of them have their own stories and their own complex reasons for choosing the path they do.  Again I must quote her, because she says it best: “My mother herself had probably given up long ago trying to draw tidy ultimate conclusions about her own existence, having abandoned (as so many of us do, after a certain age) the luxuriously innocent fantasy that one is entitled to have unmixed feelings about one’s own life.”

I suspect that this is Gilbert’s greatest strength- the ability to see and accurately describe the world around her.  Not just flash descriptions or one-line categories.  But the beautiful and the devastating, the miraculous and mundane, the epiphanies and the mistakes- all at once, all in the same person.  I don’t think I know a single other writer who does that as well.

In the end, this book, like E,P,L before it, touched on a lot of personally significant questions for me and gave me a more comprehensive understanding of one of the most complicated milestones in human existence.  I have a lot more reading to do on the subject, and will be following some of Gilbert's recommendations for that purpose.  But without this starter guide, if you will, I don’t think I’d be as interested in studying up on it. 

In addition, after reading a second of her books and loving it so thoroughly for the writer more than the subject I am now convinced that I would be a massive idiot not to try out some of her less famous works that proceeded E,P,L.  The Last American Man is a thought-provoking title, don’t you think?

To learn more about Gilbert, click here.
To see her TED talk, one of the greatest explorations on creativity I’ve ever been exposed to, click here.
And to read my review of Eat, Pray, Love, click here.

3 comments:

  1. I think fans explaining why they adore works is valid, and even some of the most enlightning reflective writing on craft. I liked that you came out and admitted it up front, though there ought not be any guilt about it. I also adore her TED talk.

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  2. My love, I didn't get to say so because I picked Ross up right when I got off the bus after leaving you, but I so very desperately needed that weekend and I think we should do that sort of thing way more often than we do right now.

    I've started Eat Pray Love and I adore it so far. I've been in the middle of six books over the last three months, and this is the first book I've started that I actually feel motivated to finish (which is wonderful, as I love reading so much that to pick up a book and not finish it feels somehow soul-damaging to me!). So thank you for giving me the push to read it - it had been sitting on my shelf patiently waiting for such a push. Needless to say I'm sure I'll read Committed, too, once I'm done with EPL, especially seeing how you sang its praises to me. ^_^

    So many hugs for you, Bevvy.

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    1. I am so deeply excited that I helped to turn you on to her- I am positive that you will get a ton out of E,P,L and Committed when the times comes!

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