Anyone who’s followed this site for any length of time knows that I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Gilbert. I flat-out fell in love with her when I read Eat, Pray, Love and that love was solidified when I read Committed. (Click on the titles to read my reviews, both of which contain a great deal of me in rabid fan girl mode.)
It’s a strange experience, and one I haven’t had before: to come to know an author, love them and then learn that there’s an entirely different side to them that you never knew existed. That’s what happened to me when I read Pilgrims, Gilbert’s collection of short stories and my first exposure to her fiction.
I know that memoir and fiction are two very different animals. The voice that comes through in the writing should be different, because it serves different purposes. In memoir writing, it’s deeply personal. So all of your traits, your quirks, the things that make you you should come through in your writing. (And Gilbert’s voice is as loud and clear as a bell.) But fiction is different. Your voice has to play stage crew so that your character’s voice can take center stage. In fact, if you do your job well, your voice will be very hard to hear because your characters are so real.
Perhaps that’s why I found myself frequently forgetting that I was reading one of my favorite authors when I read this book- I hardly heard her voice at all. There are qualities, certainly. A certain compassion for the human condition, no matter what state it’s in. A certain understanding of the deeply complex ways that lives intersect with each other. A certain appreciation for the many different forms that love can take. A lack of judgment when looking at all these things. All of these can be found in both her memoirs and this collection.
But the voice- that feeling of having a really great conversation with an old friend in a coffee shop that made me fall head over heels for her in her memoirs- that’s not in this book. These characters are entirely too different from Gilbert and vibrant in their own right. They are entirely too real for you to think about the author.
Which is why I feel as though I’ve fallen in love with Gilbert anew- because this is such a distinctly different experience for me as a reader. Few of the hallmarks that made me love her as a memoir author are there, so I got to start from scratch in falling in love with her as a fiction writer. It seems almost odd to delineate and critique the nuances given my strong emotion towards it. But then again, I am a writer, and this is how we learn.
Firstly, this may be the most realistic dialogue I’ve ever read in my life. Seriously. Not once- not one single time- while reading these stories did I feel like I was reading dialogue. I felt like I was reading actual transposed conversations. I have heard these voices before: the turn of phrase characteristic to a certain part of the country, the abrupt way that more aggressive types can cut you off which is jarring at first but you come to appreciate if you know them, the way that the more quiet individuals give you the bare amount of information and leave it to you to fill in the rest, the quirks of conversation that people fall into. Every single one of these voices sounds real- like you eavesdropped on the conversation going on in the next booth at the diner or walked by an open window where people were talking loudly. It’s staggering to realize that all these voices came from the same person and it reminds me of how very, very far I have to go in writing my own dialogue.
Secondly, the physical descriptions are striking. I have a distinct memory of Gilbert’s description of someone’s collar and neck from Eat, Pray, Love in which she described it as a giant flower pot containing a tiny stem supporting a large, heavy flower. Something about it stuck with me. Well, this book is absolutely full of those distinctions. Each image is composed of the other images that make it familiar- beards worn by prophets or the homeless, body parts that evoke the same response as baked goods in a bakery window, facial features that would appear on a sculpture before it was finished by the artist. They’re as distinct as the voices and they encompass all the senses- sight, sound, scent, touch. They serve as the undercoat of fur that makes the dialogue so luxurious to feel.
Thirdly, her ability to capture a distinct moment in time is truly amazing. The large majority of these stores are moments. A particular evening, one afternoon, a late night adventure- a pause. They don’t recount pivotal moments and very frequently nothing all that major occurs during them. But they give you a crystal clear view of a particular moment in the characters’ lives- their thoughts, feelings, desires, struggles, observations. They’re distinct capsules of time with some reference to the timeline before (and sometimes after)- but they’re rarely life-changing. It’s worth note, I think, because I don’t think I’ve read stories that display a distinct beginning, middle and end with tension and resolution so subtly. A lot of authors hit you in the face with those elements while these stories leave you feeling… wistful.
The closest style of writing I have to compare it to is Amy Bloom. I was often underwhelmed at the close of her stories but then found myself thinking about them in the spare moments of life, recalling the subtle details and phrases that I didn’t realize had stuck so thoroughly in my mind. Gilbert has the same effect- you come to the close of a story feeling like there wasn’t really an end and then find yourself going over the details in your mind and tripping over subtleties you didn’t notice when you read through it. The characters leave you ruminating, digesting for some time to come.