August 31, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg
I only managed to read four books this month, and two I’ve already discussed and one isn’t released until October. So here’s the fourth, though it really turns into a review of a review, but that’s what happens when I get annoyed.
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
I genuinely expected to loathe this book. I managed to miss the Oprah-hype, and what I knew about it suggested a self-indulgent and vapid trip of self-discovery through a few countries, appropriating the Wisdom Of The East as a vehicle for assuaging one western woman’s midlife crisis.
Well, some of that is true. I was rooting for her Balinese healer to successfully pull a fast one on her.
But Gilbert has an amazing prose style, and she isn’t afraid to show herself as vulnerable and downright messy. I wished the book had been 50 pages shorter, but I wasn’t sighing and skipping ahead. (Perhaps the ‘bead structure’ forced a few extra segments.) The book is a bit of a hodgepodge – but surely that’s intentional or at least inevitable, because so is life, after all, and it’s difficult enough to pull things together into 108 neat little packages, so in a book which focuses on one’s own life, there needs to be some overlap and spillage or it doesn’t accurately reflect life. I definitely felt the ending was weak – there was this flashback to a previous ‘I’m pulling myself together’ episode and I thought, wait, haven’t we spent the entire book getting to the same point?
What I liked most is that she interrogates her own cliches, both her life pre-journey and the fact that she ends up with a man. She pinpoints the essential difference between ‘getting a man as a reward’ and building herself up into a healthy person who then finds a relationship. Incredibly refreshing.
…I went looking for the inevitable criticism based on the fact that Gilbert is a woman. I didn’t have far to look. Here’s an excerpt from Rolf Potts’ review at WorldHum:
‘Men occasionally appear in this survivor’s tale, but they are as one-dimensional as adventure-[word deleted to avoid filtering software but it begins with po and ends with rn] wenches, and mainly serve as a sounding board for the protagonist’s feelings. When these men are giving our heroine love and help, she gushes with admiration; when they can’t intuit her emotional needs, she reacts with despair (and vague contempt). Rarely does she ponder what—besides emotional availability to her—might motivate these men in day-to-day life.’
Potts is right about the ‘helpless victims, hot-blooded savage-vixens or hookers’ and their ubiquitous roles in men’s literature. Say hello to the most boring tropes in existence: passive woman waiting to be rescued by hunky hero (to whom she gives herself as reward), sultry sexual vamp (who dies), hooker with a heart of gold who is both nurturing maternal figure AND easy lay. Where Potts completely falls down on the job is in assuming that such one-dimensional female characters are somehow restricted to mid-century derring-do novels (a literary sub-genre that can easily be dismissed in and of itself), so that by using the reverse tropes Gilbert is somehow a throwback to an earlier, more cliched way of looking at the opposite sex.
Guess what! She isn’t.
I’m personally sick of male-oriented narratives where the female character exists solely to service the male character’s journey of self-discovery. Where women are one-dimensional wenches (quite often literally). They’re object, not subject. They put out when required and shut up when they aren’t cooing to inflate the man’s ego.
Potts opens his critique by flipping the genders – which is a fine exercise and one I regularly do – of Gilbert’s book, but then he sets up a straw (wo)man by claiming that ‘American women would react with hostility at such a self-absorbed, culturally oblivious and vaguely sexist narrative’. I wish. The reverse narrative he describes is so common that no one would even blink. Here’s an excerpt:
‘I extol the virtues of these Italian women, who know how to treat their men—selflessly lavishing them with love and making them the center of attention. I pointedly ponder how nice it would be if the American women in my life had had the awareness to treat me that way.’
How is that supposed to be dramatically new and vibrant? Does Potts actually believe that this is going to make every feminist in the land rise up and threaten him? It’s the basic theme of every story about a middle-aged guy who leaves his wife, except that sometimes instead of running off to [insert tropical paradise here] and taking up with a foreign teenager (a cliche which Gilbert explicitly mentions), they get their own apartment and take up with a local college student. But somehow by announcing that if HE did this he’d be strung up, Potts claims the authority to eviscerate Gilbert’s take on the self-discovery memoir.
Potts ends by stating ‘don’t expect me to relate’ to Gilbert’s narrative. Um, okay, fine. Yet culture tells me that I’m expected to relate to the far more common male narrative of self-discovery. I have Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain on my TBR stack and I have just skimmed through the book. I saw references to a girl he fell in love with on board ship (for two pages!) and St Therese de Lisieux. But damned if I wasn’t recommended to read this book by a man of my acquaintance, and somehow I’m supposed to find Merton’s journey to enlightenment ‘universal’ even though the only women seem to be a brief crush and a Catholic saint – and I strongly doubt that either of them will be anything more than ‘one-dimensional’ or that Merton will give any thought to what motivates them.
We’ll see. I suspect I’d rather reread Eat Pray Love, messiness and all.