Elizabeth Gilbert1

From the skeptic’s perspective

In the follow-up to her celebrated memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert delves into her aversion to marriage, this time relying on history and sociology to supplement her own personal candor.

By Naila Francis

In some sense, she felt an obligation.

After leading readers on her soul-searching trek through Italy, India and Indonesia in her mega-best-selling travelogue “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert left them basking in her own heady renewal: fleeing a bitter divorce and turbulent love affair, she’d eventually, through the course of fleeting gluttony and deepening spirituality, found love with a charming Brazilian-born man in Bali.

A pretty satisfying conclusion by all standards … except that the Frenchtown author had never expected the overwhelming response to her emotively candid chronicle of personal healing and transformation.

At best, she’d hoped that her handful of loyal readers would indulge her sudden need to write a memoir in a voice far different from the one she’d inhabited in her previous books exploring macho male subjects (including her debut novel “Stern Men” and naturalist Eustace Conway’s biography “The Last American Man”).

But then “Eat, Pray, Love,” after modest hardcover sales, went on to spend 57 weeks atop the New York Times‘ paperback best-seller list. Published in 2006, it also became a best-seller overseas, catapulted Gilbert to Oprah’s television couch and inspired the forthcoming film adaptation starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem.

“I definitely went from somebody who had dozens of fans, most of whom share my last name, to an entirely different kind of situation,” says Gilbert, speaking via phone from the home she shares with husband Jose Nunes — known to readers as Felipe in “Eat, Pray, Love” — in the quaint New Jersey river town.

From that stratosphere of attention, the prospect of writing her next book was understandably daunting. She had some vague ideas — a novel about the Amazon perhaps or a nonfiction work on creativity — but then came an encounter with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and subsequently the birth of “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.”

The book, released Jan. 5 by Viking (a Penguin Group imprint), is not necessarily a sequel to “Eat, Pray, Love,” but it does pick up where the couple left off, having resettled in the states and pledged their eternal faithfulness to each other, while also staunchly swearing off any thoughts of marriage. Felipe had also been burned by his first marriage. And so haunted by the specter of divorce and understandably suspicious of the institution of matrimony, both were content to make all sorts of promises to each other — except the one that would officially, at least in the eyes of the state, sanctify their union.

Then returning from France via Dallas to the Philadelphia home they’d been renting in 2006, they were detained by immigration officials. Nunes, though Brazilian by birth, was an Australian citizen who traveled frequently to the U.S. due to his business importing gemstones and jewelry from Brazil and Indonesia. But because of his relationship with Gilbert, rather than brief visits throughout the year, he’d now been staying three months at a time, only to leave the country when it was time to reapply for a new 90-day visa, and then quickly return. It was nothing illegal, but the couple was told that the only way Nunes would be allowed back into the U.S. was if they got married.

And so “Committed” recounts Gilbert’s attempts to embrace what in effect felt like a sentence. The couple spent the 10 months it took for Nunes’ paperwork to be approved traipsing across Southeast Asia and even returning to Bali for a spell. And in that time, Gilbert sought to understand everything she possibly could about marriage by exhaustively researching its history and traditions and interviewing everyone from the Hmong women of North Vietnam and the weavers of a small Laotian village to her own friends and family, including her 96-year-old grandmother, who had seven children.

Ultimately, her journey to arrive at her wedding day happy and conscious — and that she did in a small, informal ceremony in her Frenchtown home officiated by the town’s mayor — proved a rewarding conclusion to the odyssey begun in “Eat, Pray, Love.”

“There would have been something almost irresponsible about leaving the readers of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ on that incredibly high romantic fairy-tale ending and just kind of abandoning them there in the middle of Indonesia — ‘OK, the end,’ when in fact it was just the beginning of what has been a long and complicated relationship,” says Gilbert, who recently celebrated her third wedding anniversary. “How do you take these two complicated people who fall in love with each other and then build an actual life that ends up in New Jersey?

“I feel more satisfied about ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ being out there now that I know there was a moment that came where I turned on all the lights and burned out all the candles and said, ‘Now, we can have a serious conversation about what marriage is.’ ”

“Committed,” which has already topped the New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction list, has also allowed her a much-needed exhalation from the pressures of following up her epically successful first memoir.

“It feels like I just got out of jail to be honest. I never, ever have to write the book that came after ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ again,” she says, though the follow-up didn’t exactly pour out of her.

She, in fact, scrapped the entire first draft — almost 500 pages — finding its snappy, intimate tone incongruous with the subject matter.

“I was trying to write in an intimation of my own voice from five years earlier and I wasn’t in that place. I was older, I had changed, everything had changed, and I certainly was not feeling emotionally raw in the same way,” says Gilbert, who eventually determined she would write, not for her millions of eager fans, but for a small, dear circle of women. “In a weird way, once I stumbled on that solution, of writing for my closest family and friends, it freed me up to write in the voice that I am currently inhabiting.”

The amiable, conversational tone is still there, but so, too, a greater somberness and maturity, not to mention a tinge of the academic, given all the scholarly writings, sociological findings, myths, religious perspectives and other studies that she spent countless hours exploring. Her goal was to come off as neither a fierce opponent of marriage nor an advocate of its alternatives. Yet she couldn’t help building a compelling case for why marriage, even to a man who adored her as unabashedly as Nunes, proves a threat to so many women.

“The most eye-opening thing was this sociological piece of information that as you look at the history of marriage across the country, one trend you can see undeniably is that wherever we replace a culture of pragmatic arranged marriage with a culture of expressive marriage, the divorce rates are going to skyrocket,” says Gilbert, who spoke with her sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, a children’s author who lives in Wayne, at the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia last week. “As soon as we reduce the reasons for marriage to mere love, we immediately make it more fragile.

“We think that love is so strong, but love is and also is not. Anything that the heart has chosen for its own mysterious and unknowable reasons it can un-choose later for a whole set of other mysterious and unknowable reasons. That makes the whole gambit pretty risky but exciting. … And it seems to me that divorce is the tax we pay and the risk we take for choosing to believe as a society in love.”

The rural Connecticut native also considers well-worn statistics indicating that while married men tend to fare better in life than single men, married women are less financially successful, suffer from higher incidences of depression, don’t live as long and are more likely to be victims of violence than their single counterparts.

But there are affirmations, too, particularly her observations that marriages entered into later in life tend to be stronger with a greater potential to last. And it is in this regard that Gilbert, 40, happily acknowledges her soapbox moment.

Though she says “Committed” is intended as a compilation of findings presented without many conclusions — “It’s more information than you would be able to gather before your wedding day,” she says — there is a truism by which she stands.

“If there’s any one message that comes so strongly through all the research and all the studies and all the interpretations of marriage, it is that this is not a sport for children. This is not a game for the young because you have not lived long enough and collected enough information about yourself let alone somebody else to make that kind of decision,” she says.

As for her own reconciliation with the age-old tradition, it was marriage’s inherent subversiveness that eventually won her over. That it exists at all today despite centuries of change and evolution proves an adaptability that has more to do with those pursuing marriage as the ultimate inviolate union than it does the laws and authoritarian principles that have tried to shape and control it.

“The reason we have this archaic old custom at all and the reason that so many people are still fighting for the right to join in that custom is because it’s something that we need. People want to fall in love and when that happens, they’re going to want to get married,” says Gilbert. “But you can’t have intimacy without privacy and you can’t have privacy without your rights and you can’t have your rights without some sort of state sanction that defends you from anyone interfering with your privacy.

“All the reasons I previously had against marriage weren’t as strong as my sense of stewardship of this relationship and this person who I had to save from jeopardy, and the only way to do that was to put that circle around us that was now inviolable and that earns us a tremendous amount of respect. I pulled this circle of safety around myself and this man and they couldn’t take him away from me again.”

Since their wedding, the two have settled easily into life in the small, restored mill town, where they volunteer at a number of community events, make time for their neighbors and enjoy running Two Buttons, an Asian import shop that they recently relocated from an old warehouse on the north side of town to the former Aries Electronics building next to the Blue Fish store on Trenton Avenue.

Gilbert chose their home base while still in Bali waiting for Nunes’ visa to be cleared. The location, relatively close to her sister and her parents, who will be moving from Connecticut to Philadelphia, builds on another premise uncovered in her research, as well as during a conversation with a woman in Laos, who explained that couples with marital problems will seek solutions from a public council as a last resolve before filing for divorce.

“Stronger marriages tend to be ones where you’re entrenched in a community and there are more people whose lives are at stake in your decisions. There’s this idea of being held up by other people besides yourselves,” she says. “That was a large part of our decision to settle exactly here, between my sister and my parents, in a place where we have that built-in anchored support and it’s not just the two of us living alone rattling around like pinballs. We actually belong to a place and the stakes indicate that were we to separate, it would do harm to the community at large.”

While her book tour will take her to Australia and Europe later this year, those 10 months of itinerant living in 2006 seem to have shaken off the travel bug that sent her roaming in search of a good story through much of her 20s and early-30s.

“I’m full of this huge longing just to be here,” says Gilbert, who plans to take the summer off after wrapping up the first leg of her book tour. “It’s all going to be about the garden and riding my bicycle and being in Frenchtown and on the river and in the river. I’m giving myself time to just enjoy this wonderful time and this wonderful place.”

After writing two memoirs in a row, she is moving in a somewhat familiar literary direction. Next up: another novel. But if nothing she does from here on out surpasses or even equals the success of “Eat, Pray, Love,” she won’t be complaining, having found a sense of balance and perspective in the equilibrium she’s carved out of the last few years.

“I got all the great lunacy out of my system when I was poor and obscure,” says Gilbert. “Having spent a good solid five years pulling myself together and determinedly growing up put me in a good position to deal with (fame) when it happened. If it happened earlier, I guarantee you I would be getting out of limousines with no underpants and all that stuff, and I’m definitely not going to let that happen.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer