At the moment, I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Writing a blog post about this book now feels about as timely as writing about how much I love Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation. I’m not exactly on the cutting edge here, literarily speaking. There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t read this book until now. Frankly, and this isn’t the most flattering thing to admit, it was the book’s popularity that turned me off. Too many people were reading it, and praising it. Oh, and when I say people I mean women. I’m not adverse to popular culture, but I was suspicious of a book that seemed to appeal to every woman on the planet. I got a little sick of women talking about it in reverent tones, and I thought, well, she won’t get me. No, sir, that Elizabeth Gilbert will not find ME such an easy target.
I really showed her, eh?
My wonderful mother-in-law gave me her copy of the book, and it happened to have a quote from Anne Lamott on the cover. An author’s quote on the cover has never, ever figured into my decision to read a book. But I love Anne Lamott. I could go on and on about how much I love her but, for now, suffice it to say that I love her enough to read a book that I was previously indisposed to read simply because her name is in small print on the cover.
From the first sentences in the first paragraphs on the first pages, I have enjoyed reading about the author’s struggles to make honest though painful choices, and then to deal with the honestly painful consequences, and then to find joy on the other side of it all. The thing I like most about the book is that it is funny (and I do want a book that entertains me), even with all that painful stuff. My second favorite thing about it is that her voice seems true. I have not been divorced, or written books, or traveled as extensively as Gilbert has. Still, much of what she is saying – about balancing ambition with contentment, selfishness with loving others, worldly pleasures with spiritual pursuits – resonates with me. Gilbert is pretty vague about the reasons for which she and her husband broke up, and of course there is more to that story than she tells in her memoir. This isn’t a story about marriage, though. It’s mostly a story about journeys, and listening to the voice within.
While I read the first few chapters, I alternated between smiling about the book (really, I was smiling at the book) and shaking my head at myself for not picking it up before now. Did I think that my taste in books was so superior that it couldn’t possibly overlap with that of millions of other readers? Well, yes. Yes, I did.
This misguided conceit (let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?) has bitten me in the butt a couple of times before.
The first time that I can remember was with Paris (the city, not the heiress, of course). One can hardly think of Paris without thinking of Movie Paris, or Postcard Paris. “Where are you going on your honeymoon? Paris? *Sigh* Oh, Paris! How romantic, how dreamy…” Ack! How obvious! I would think, “Paris, you may have fooled all those other poor schlubs, but I know that you are just a city like any other… except maybe more aggravating because you are trying so hard to be PARIS, which no city can be. Being in Paris is probably like walking around on a movie set. A movie set with gift shops.”
Then, when I was 21, I went to Paris. I was studying in Florence, and decided to spend a long weekend in Paris with my friend Kerri. Kerri and I stepped off the train at 7am, and walked right into Paris. I recognized immediately that actually, improbably, Paris really was Paris. The morning was misty, and we went directly to eat the most delicious crepes on the face of the planet. I had been in Paris for about five minutes when I lifted my face to the grey sky and told the crumbling facades and bridges that it would be just fine with me if I were forced to stay there forever. We spent sunny afternoons in the parks and gardens (I swear accordion music followed us wherever we went), and then when it rained we ducked into red booths at corner bistros and ordered wine and french onion soup. I had been avoiding Paris because I’d thought it couldn’t possibly be exactly what it seemed to be. Which, of course, is what it was.
In more recent years, I met this fellow at a company where I got a job soon after graduating from college. This fellow was always making people laugh, was always working hard to make his team and his coworkers look really good. And, yes I’ll say it, he was durn cute – tall and lanky, with curly hair and a sweet smile. His major personality flaw? Everyone liked him. Several women at the company had crushes on him, and his going away party when he gave notice was so widely attended (and cost the company so much money) that it was the last one our department ever threw. I began to look at him askance: “I don’t see what all the FUSS is about! Just a guy. Not all that.” I insisted that everyone else had been taken in and, in fact, laughed with my friends at what a phony this guy… this Chris guy… was.
Oh, once again, the joke was on me.
I can’t say the exact moment when my feelings changed. There was no crumbling bridge, no misty morning. Just lots of emails and phone calls and, finally, plates of papardelle alla nonna at a small Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. Five years of marriage and one beautiful daughter later, I can say that my feelings definitely did, er, shift regarding that fellow.
So, will I learn to be more open-minded? To tell that cynical voice to stuff it and give the person (or book or city) in question a fair chance? Probably not. It’s delicious finding out when I’ve been so wrong.