Its been a while since I reviewed a book although this is no reflection of how many I’ve read of late because, in truth, I am reading more prolifically than ever, sometimes keeping abreast of up to 4 books (fiction and non-fiction) at a time which is, I have to say, one of the great advantages of Kindle. Fact is that if I took the time to review every book that left a mark on me these days, I would be spending nearly all of my blog-time on book review and would have precious little left over for painting or anything else and so I tend to hold back from doing one review after another…unless I’m really grabbed by the throat by something I’ve read. It goes without saying, then, that this time I’ve been thoroughly grabbed!
Having already watched the well-publicised film, headlined by Julia Roberts, “Eat Pray Love” twice before I set about reading the book of the same name (and enjoyed it sufficiently for the DVD to have added itself to my collection over Christmas) I felt well-enough acquainted with the essence of “the story” to know that I would feel comfortable with it as soon as I started on this autobiographical account of “one woman’s search for everything” by Elizabeth Gilbert. I was also realistic enough to expect to uncover new depths in the book that would, no doubt, have been lost in the transition to the big screen or been edited out in the name of fabricating a more roundedly commercial “plot” for those fans of Ms Roberts that were expecting something of a “Notting Hill” storyline. I was right on both counts. The film certainly has some plot “tweaks” that were written in to embellish the screenplay for a cinema audience and, whilst I loved the film, the book is in a different league altogether. Don’t get me wrong, the film is wonderful, one of my all-time favourites; a really thought-provoking, visually stunning, feel-good two hours or so of being taken on a trip that is medicine for the soul. But the book is even better!
From the very opening pages, I was drawn in and veritably tingling with the kind of frisson you only ever get from reading something that resonates at a very personal level. In a nutshell, “Eat Pray Love” is an account of the literal (Italy-India-Bali) and spiritual journey undertaken by its author following a traumatic divorce and entirely separate relationship heartbreak. Isn’t it often so that we are drawn to books – especially of the autobiographical variety – that mirror aspects of our own lives, periods of personal-growth that we have experienced, pilgrimages that we have been on? The parallels with my own life “journey” were glaring from the outset – OK, so I’ve holidayed several times in Italy but never lived there, I’ve never stayed on an Ashram in India or spent months in Bali learning about “balance” from an ancient Indonesian medicine man but, hey, those are just a few peripheral variances, a small matter of detail! For the past 10 years, I’ve been “recovering” from (yes) a divorce that went off like an h-bomb and the total and utter shift of my “sense of self” that that accompanied – not only as I learned to survive in the devastated landscape of the aftermath but as I was forced to come to terms with the stark realisation that I had made some appalling errors of judgement up until that time that had, in effect, lead me to my own crisis and cornered me in a life that was resoundingly “not what I wanted” at all – how had I made so many glaring mistakes and had so little understanding about, well, anything up until that point? Shaken to the roots I was faced, in my mid 30s, with the urgent necessity of tipping out, stirring up and reorganising all of the most minute building blocks of “who I am, what I am, what I want” so that I could start again from scratch – a process that is now very far advanced but which, as is the way of life, is still very much a “work in progress”, although at least I now feel that I am heading in the right direction and with the right people on board. I have also had to deal with some reasonably serious health issues – all part and parcel of the above implosion of “self” – and so, in my own way, if in a less literal sense, I have been on my own epic “journey” of discovery these past few years.
Like Liz Gilbert’s journey, mine has recently taken a spiritual turn, as any journey to find “self” usually must, and so as she describes her earliest attempts at using meditation to “quiet her mind”, I can identify with all of my own considerable efforts to do this over the past year during which time I have introduced an hour of meditation into my daily routine and worked so hard at doing this (or, that is to say, not worked so hard at doing it – learning to stop intellectualising it – but just letting whatever happens, whatever comes into my mind, be “OK”). As a result of my efforts at meditating, I can report that I have had some hugely interesting experiences, revelations and epiphanies, some truly transcendental moments – not quite “sitting in the palm of God’s hand”, the pinnacle of all meditative experiences reported by Elizabeth Gilbert on her Ashram (I have that to aspire to now!) but, certainly, some transformatory stuff. On top of that, I have had stuff “come up to the surface”, bucket-loads of feelings, things from the past, troublesome thoughts, obsolete beliefs – all of which have surfaced through meditation so that I have been able to look them in the eye, deal with and accept them so that I can move on unburdened – so whilst it hasn’t always been an easy journey (nor so was Liz’s journey in “Eat Pray Love”) it has been productive beyond description. Painting is also a form of meditation for me, as I’ve mentioned before, as it takes me to the same place of mental quiet, of being “in the flow” as meditation and – when it really happens – to a place of purest inspiration and of feeling connected to something far more immense and on a different scale entirely to the every-day supposed confines (largely man-made) of our world, to a place of perfect peace and, yes, of joy – and so is it any wonder that I can’t get enough of painting! Since, like Liz Gilbert, I have spent so much time seeking inner peace through these means and, as a bi-product of that, have already unearthed a far-greater sense of “self” than I had just a year or so ago, it was deeply gratifying to read an account of someone who has taken this route so much further than I have since it has left me with a delicious fizz of anticipation in terms of the road ahead – and so “Eat Pray Love” is a fantastically inspirational book for anyone looking to make this kind of inner journey. And all so much more enjoyable to read, more accessible (or less daunting) and with so many more facets to it, than anything coming out of the self-help genre or the more formal guides to meditation; “Eat Pray Love” is very tangible, very funny and very very rooted in the thought-processes of a real life, flesh-and-blood woman.
The next thing that seemed to yell out “snap” accompanied by a somewhat comical internal hoot of self-recognition was the fact that, as I read of the sheer delight, the gluttonous appetite with which she (Liz, the main “character”) set out to learn Italian – and all as an extravagant gesture of “because I want to”, in the name of self-gratification and out of a love of this most beautiful of languages – I was already two months into my own Italian course, undertaken (yes) for no better reason than the fact I wanted to be able to let those delicious Italian words string together and pour from my lips; it is a language that I have had a love-affair with for the longest of times! A coincidence, then, that this long-held ambition of mine seems to have bobbed back up to the surface now that I am in the throes of finding myself (my first attempts at Italian were many years ago during my first marriage but, back then, there seemed to be an invisible blockage to my learning, something holding me back as I hardly managed to get past the first rudiments)? This time I’m using the Babbel course which means I get to hear, read, write and immerse myself in the language on demand and even chat to native speakers online and I’m loving it, even starting to wake up with Italian sentences bouncing around in my head like moths caught in a jam jar! The difference this time – perhaps a reflection of my newly-invented approach to all of life – is that I am approaching the task of learning Italian as I would approach a large connoisseur box of the finest chocolates, one that I can dip into and savour as slowly, as decadently as I like, there is no pressure, there are no time constraints, it is all for the sheer enjoyment of it. If I like the sound of something I go over it again, I pin words next to my bed, I prick up my ears to collect new vocabulary whenever I hear it in contexts outside of my lessons and this is all being done for sheer love of the language – which is why Ms Gilbert’s soliloquy to the joys of learning Italian (in her case, through total immersion by living in Rome for several months) rang out as the purest note that translates as “yes, I understand entirely”. For me, this made the first few chapters of the book a particular joy to read and they will stay with me long after my next visit to my beloved Italy this summer.
Another thing that resonated with me was that, in the final stage of her journey, Liz goes to Bali in search of a sense of balance. Now, balance is something I have been looking for like the holy grail these past few years. Balance in my work/life rhythms. Balance in my relationships. Balance in my health. No surprise that her story ends with her having allowed a man back into her newly balanced life or, rather, the conclusion reached is that that the very reason for her having achieved such a state of perfect balance is that she is now in a position to allow such a relationship, and all its incumbent joys and complications, back into her world – the underlying sentiment being that to be all about the spiritual without any of the physical is no balance at all (which is where so many seekers of balance go so dreadfully wrong). That is pretty much the conclusion that I have reached for myself these past months: true balance is to enjoy and experience all that this colourful, physical, tactile life has to offer as well as being aware of the spiritual dimension and enabling yourself to feel connected to something much bigger than the physical world so that the ending sentiment of the story is pretty much a mirror of where I am at right now; and thus a very satisfying ending indeed.
That’s the bare bones of “Eat Pray Love” and there is so much more flesh to the book than either I or the film could even start to hint at, which is why I would urge anyone who enjoyed watching the film to get reading and if you haven’t encountered either version, do both. And before I risk paraphrasing the story any more than I have, my best advice is that if you are even remotely curious about a journey that takes in sensual pleasure, spiritual enlightenment and finding a “sense of balance”, just read it. Doesn’t matter if you are male or female (I have strongly recommended it to my husband), if any of this even remotely appeals to you, don’t hesitate, just read it. Seldom have I read a more enjoyable story, one that is so perfectly poised between being an actual autobiography (which it clearly is) and yet having enough structure to pass itself off as well-crafted fiction, one that is straddled between delivering spadefuls of straightforward storytelling pleasure and yet which is littered with so many pearls of life-wisdom that I have quite blackened it with underlining!
Going back to my original point, that my own journey (although grown into so much more than that now) started all those years ago as some sort of vague intention to “quiet my mind”, to turn off some of the mind chatter that seemed to plague my world, make me ill, keep me in a constant place of worry, regret and fear; and doesn’t that describe the most part of the human condition as experienced by most of the people we know? Well, in the final chapter of “Eat Pray Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert captures this perfectly with her observation:
“The Yogic sages say that the pain of a human life is caused by words, as is all the joy. We create words to define our experiences and those words bring attendant emotions that jerk us around like dogs on a leash. We get seduced by our own mantras (I’m a failure…I’m lonely…I’m a failure…I’m lonely…) and we become monuments to them”.
She goes on to describe (in reference to her time spent alone on an island):
“It took me a while to drop into true silence. Even after I’d stopped talking, I found that I was still humming with language. My organs and muscles of speech – brain, throat, chest, back of the neck – vibrated with the residual effects of talking long after I’d stopped making sounds. My head shimmied in a reverb of words, the way an indoor swimming pool seems to echo interminably with sounds and shouts, even after the kindergartners have left for the day”.
Even this very articulate description of mind-chatter had a particular resonance as I rounded off the final chapter of the book this morning, and particularly because of an experience I had just a couple of days ago, walking the Roman walls at Silchester which (as I’ve mentioned before) is a place that I find particularly spiritual and conducive to a sort-of meditative stroll when I need one and so it is often where I go when I want to be alone to “quiet” my mind, for a bit of soul-mending or just as a means of reconnecting with something bigger. Being half term this week, I found the place had been invaded, I’ve never seen (or heard!) it so busy, not even on Boxing Day or Easter Sunday, there were hordes of children everywhere, whole mini-bus gatherings of them, boys on bikes using the grassy undulations that come down from the ancient walls as stunt-ramps(!), pushchairs and prams, whole family gatherings. The sheer volume of combined children’s voices echoing from the amphitheatre (which I decided to avoid) was so considerable that it sounded like all the hubbub of morning break in a junior-school playground being shoved through a giant speaker; I guess the shape of the thing was acting like a giant amplifier as they marauded its steep banks! It wasn’t that I was annoyed by all of this, just bemused (in future, maybe I’ll avoid the school holidays) and it was only as I considered how all these people, all this racket of human voices had transformed the place into somewhere quite different that I was struck by just how much Silchester has become a giant metaphor for my own regained “sense of self” over the course of the years that I have been walking there, its literal circle of peace and quietude – a mixture of crumbling architecture and wide open skies – acting as a perfect symbol for the inner state that I have striven towards, consisting (yes) of the man-made physical world of bricks and mortar and yet open to something much bigger than itself, a higher force that is as woven through its fabric as the moss that has thickly carpeted the stones, a marriage of the man-made with nature, and this whole microcosm of existence knitted together by the over-riding feeling of tranquility and calm that prevails over it all (most of the time). All this new disturbance, this sudden switching-back-on of the metaphorical hullabaloo was like a timely reminder of where I have come from, a going-back-in-time to all the endless chatter and chaotic noise that used to be there inside my own mind but now turned down so low as to have become sotto voce beneath the sounds of nature and the softer, breathier rhythms of wellbeing. As (with this metaphor’s assistance) I was able to grasp just how much of a transition has taken place in my own life over the past half-decade or so, I just had to smile – yes, I have been on my own journey too.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – is available in paperback from Bloomsbury Publishing or as a Kindle edition from Amazon. Very Highly Recommended!