When readers last left Elizabeth Gilbert, she and her Brazilian lover were jumping joyously into the Java Sea. The leap was metaphorical as well—a triumphant ending to Eat, Pray, Love, the American writer’s post-divorce, pan-continental self-discovery tour capped by her falling in love with a man she dubbed “Felipe,” a precious gem importer 17 years her senior. The 2006 single-gal escape fantasy became a cultural phenom, selling millions of copies, inspiring travel junkets, and spawning a chick flick starring Julia Roberts out later this year.
Now there’s a sequel, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, which traces a more tortuous internal trek: Gilbert’s attempt to shed her (re)marriage aversion before taking Felipe as her husband. She succeeds, more or less, though sadly all indicators point to the legalized love match being doomed.
Early in their relationship, the couple vowed never to marry. Both devastated by previous divorces, they delightedly defined themselves as permanently unmarried soulmates and pledged lifelong fidelity in two unofficial ceremonies. Then, in 2006, after two years flitting between continents, Felipe, an Australian citizen who lived in Bali, had his U.S. visa revoked. If he wanted to re-enter the country, a U.S. government agent told them, they should marry, a remedy Gilbert greeted as if handed a death sentence: “I felt mournful and sucker punched and heavy and banished from some fundamental aspect of my being, but most of all I felt caught,” she writes.
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Thinking he’d tossed a loving couple a lifeline, the official was shocked. “No, seriously—what’s the problem?” he asked, trying to console them: “You could always sign a prenuptial agreement . . . Or if it’s the relationship issues that scare you, maybe some counselling would be a good idea.” Now, when Homeland Security is providing marital advice, it’s a red flag—a cautionary note that swells to a crimson tide suggesting that for all of the couple’s passion and devotion, marriage is a really bad idea.
Yet not getting legally hitched is never an option for Gilbert: she wants to be with Felipe and refuses to live outside the U.S. In search of a comfort zone, she plumbs the history of marriage like a first-year sociology student, examines her family’s conjugal background, and pesters bewildered women in Vietnam’s Hmong tribe about connubial felicity. What she learns is that the institution has survived by evolving, which makes mining its archives for assurance as useful as checking last month’s temperature to decide what to wear.
What the self-described “needy narcissist” never examines, however, is how the solipsistic and neurotic tendencies that have made her a literary hero to millions run counter to the self-abnegation marriage requires. Sacrifice is Felipe’s department: he sells his house in Bali and moves far from his grown children to be with Gilbert, on whom he dotes: “I require an amount of devotional attention that would make Marie Antoinette blush,” she admits. Her inability to commit to as much as a conclusion is another bad omen: “Here is something I know for certain about myself, as I near the age of 40,” she writes. “I can no longer do infatuation. It kills me.” Three pages later, she’s not so sure: “But how do I know for certain that I will never again became infatuated with someone else?” she frets, an odd question from someone who has already permanently pledged her soul.
In the end, Gilbert’s rationale for marrying is that of most modern brides—not practical need but more precarious emotional want: “I need him only because I happen to adore him, because his company brings me gladness and comfort,” she writes. Yet she also knows circumstances change: “A shared private heaven can quickly descend into a failed private hell.” Gilbert can be an engagingly insightful writer, willing to expose her flaws. She sees, for instance, that her irritation with Felipe’s occasional public temper tantrums stems from having to rethink her romantic projections about him: “It messes around with my cherished personal narrative about what a gentle and tender-hearted guy I have chosen to love.” Yet she doesn’t seem to see that these projections also allow her to overlook their glaring differences—in age, in interests, in cultural references. He likes routine, she doesn’t. She saves money, he doesn’t.
Committed ends with their 2007 wedding, a pre-nup signed, the bride defiant in red. “Felipe and I will make up the rules and boundaries of our story as we go along,” Gilbert writes. Which means, of course, any ’til-death-do-us-part vows are renegotiable, too.