'Committed': First comes love, then fear of marriage

New York Times News ServiceJanuary 10, 2010 

"COMMITTED: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage"

By Elizabeth Gilbert 285 pages, Viking, $26.95

"Megajumbo" is the word Elizabeth Gilbert uses to describe the popularity of "Eat, Pray, Love," her mega-chatty account of the midlife globe trot she undertook in the wake of a bitter divorce.

Having written a book so user-friendly it made her feel like every reader's best pal, Gilbert found herself stumped. For reasons both personal and commercial, "Eat, Pray, Love" was a tough act to follow.

"It has been a bit of a perplexity for me to figure out how, after that phenomenon, I would ever write un-selfconsciously again," she acknowledges in the introduction to "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage," a new book that proves she had reason to worry. "Not to act all falsely nostalgic for literary obscurity, but in the past I had always written my books in the belief that very few people would read them."

But that was no longer an option. She needed to write for the airport crowd, selling another heartwarming, soul-searching travel tale to readers embarking on journeys of their own.

The pressure was sufficiently paralyzing for Gilbert to write a first version of "Committed," ditch it and start all over again. The best-pal voice didn't come easily. Neither did the subject matter.

By the end of "Eat, Pray, Love" Gilbert had managed to meet cute with both God ("It was all I could do to stop myself from saying, 'I've always been a big fan of your work. ...'") and a man she calls Felipe, aka Mr. Right. In order to write "Committed," she had to spin a book-length narrative out of her thoughts about marriage - already much discussed in "Eat, Pray, Love" - and her suspense-free decision to marry a man with whom she was madly in love.

A soupcon of situation comedy was built into Gilbert's marriage conundrum: The Department of Homeland Security played Cupid for her.

In spring 2006, she and Felipe were returning from an overseas trip to suburban Philadelphia, where they shared a home. But Felipe's background - he is a Brazilian-born Australian citizen who lived for a while in Indonesia - raised eyebrows at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. He was stopped by an immigration officer. The officer made a phone call.

"Moments later," Gilbert writes, "an officer wearing the uniform of the United States Department of Homeland Security came and took my baby away."

The verdict: Felipe would be deported unless he and Gilbert got married. And they had to spend 10 months wandering through Southeast Asia, waiting for the paperwork to come through.

This gave Gilbert both time to kill and a pretext for studying the institution of marriage, culling a book's worth of reportorial anecdotes before arriving at a totally unsurprising conclusion. "You make marriage sound like a colonoscopy," her sister told her without exaggeration.

And she makes writing a book sound like busywork this time. In "Committed" the strain is as palpable as the voice is cute, and the drama is virtually nonexistent.

Gilbert begins by setting up the situation, explaining how "in the space of only a few hours, my life with Felipe had been neatly flipped upside down, as though by some great cosmic spatula." That adorable mixture of spirituality and kitchen equipment was whisked by "Eat, Pray, Love" into an airy confection but falls flat as a pancake this time.

Gilbert travels to Vietnam for the first of several condescending glances at foreign cultures. With the help of a 12-year-old bilingual Hmong girl, she asks the women of one small village about the quality of their marriages and thus sends them into peals of laughter. The Hmong, unlike middle-class American women in the throes of extreme narcissism, do not wonder about whether they've chosen the right husband. Nor do they think that, as Gilbert puts it, "the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality."

These women accept marriage as a given in ways that leave Gilbert registering exaggerated humility about her own misguided expectations.

"Perhaps I was loading a far heavier cargo of expectation onto the creaky old boat of matrimony than that strange vessel had ever been built to accommodate in the first place," she writes, in one of the padded sections that threaten to turn "Committed" into a philosophical foray.

Or perhaps she is setting up straw men and women who will make her arguments about marriage appear to be more deep-seated than they actually are.

"You see where I'm heading with this, right?" she asks later, back to talking about America and segueing past a brief section on the relationship between racial discrimination and marriage. "Or rather, you see where history is heading with this?" (Note to book clubs: Discuss.) "What I mean to say is: You won't be surprised, will you, if I now take a few minutes to discuss the subject of same-sex marriage?"

No, you won't be surprised by this or much else tossed into "Committed" in a spirit of anything-goes argument and reportage, much of it headed exactly nowhere.

"The birds are either capable of tolerating each other for many years, or they aren't," she writes about seagulls during one such digression. "It's that simple, and it's that complex."

Fortunately Felipe is on hand to begin every courtly outburst with a cry of "Darling!" and to provide "Committed" with its impetus, rationale and grand finale. Gilbert ultimately arrives at the idea that she can happily marry him without giving up her independence and identity. She even manages to attach a whiff of subversion to this game plan.

Viking now publishes the second of two current sequels to surprise runaway bestsellers. "Three Cups of Tea" has been legitimately extended into "Stones Into Schools" by Greg Mortenson, who has a timely and important story to tell.

But Gilbert has made "Eat, Pray, Love" look like a happy accident. Her "Committed" is less of a follow-up than an excuse to tread water.

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