The bestselling memoirist makes an official farewell to the book that made her a star
Some successful artists know when to put it on the shelf. In the fashion of Celine Dion, Cher, and the Eagles, Elizabeth Gilbert is saying goodbye to her megahit memoir-turned-movie Eat, Pray, Love. This week, she gave her final performance at a New York Public Library event where, according to the library's promotional materials, she would "speak in public for the last time about her "Eat, Pray, Love journey." In front of a crowd made up mostly of women, Gilbert outlined her plans for indulging another bourgeois fantasy: working in her garden. Living a private life with the dashing Brazilian she picked up in Bali, whom she calls "my guardian of normalcy." And writing something she calls "slow fiction."
Gilbert's self-discovery travelogue—which spawned a Julia Roberts vehicle—dominated the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list for 57 weeks, sold over four million copies, and has been translated into over 30 languages. But with the book's meteoric rise, she has "become synonymous with something very poppy and chick lit-y," as the author put it on Thursday night. Though Eat, Pray, Love (her fourth book) earned her fame and made Gilbert a brand, it didn't get accolades from the academy the way her earlier works did, like her first collection of short stories Pilgrims, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize. Gilbert was surprised to learn that philosophers Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Dorrance Kelly recently compared her with David Foster Wallace as an example of generational superstar writers in their new book All Things Shining: Reading Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. "I'm surprised to be taken seriously," she admitted.
About a year and a half ago, she says she'd had enough, and felt like peeling off from the Eat, Pray, Love movement. "I didn't want to do it too soon because I thought it would be rude," Gilbert said. "People love this book and they want to meet the person who wrote it. I've been the ambassador." Determined "to see the phenomenon through," she waited until the release of the film and her most recent book Committed to come out in paperback. "I wanted to be polite to this thing that had happened, but I wanted to be home, I wanted to be gardening. I wanted to be with moss and ferns."
It's easy to hate Elizabeth Gilbert. She sounds like a mix of Deepak Chopra ("I was sitting on the curb on 17th street eating lamb shwarma out of a Styrofoam thing thinking 'I have never been happier in my life! This is so wonderful!'," she told interviewer Paul Holdengraber at the NYPL event), Dr. Phil ("I have a rigid self-accountability. You have to work hard."), and Tinker Bell ("I believe in magic!") She claims she doesn't want to be a "morning talk show advice person" offering marital or spiritual to-dos, yet she has written books on both, and quakes and cries with the fervor of a motivational speaker. "We're for Team Optimism! Go Team!" she effuses. Her brand of goodness and simplicity is like Oprah's, whom she calls "a missionary of good," and "Moses-like in her mightiness." But like Oprah, whether you love her or hate her, Gilbert is infectious. Infectious like a case of the giggles to her devotees, and infectious like a VD for others. She oozes earnestness that is both refreshing and rattling in the age of snark.
Gilbert took the stage 20 minutes late, as Holdengraber said they could not wrest Walt Whitman's manuscripts from her hands upstairs in the Brooke Astor Reading Room. "She was relentless," Holdengraber said. "She just wanted to stay there among the things of beauty." She shook her blonde waves. "I started to cry, because there in Walt's hand it said, 'Shine! Shine!'" This could be Gilbert's mantra as she continues to preach her gospel of "stubborn good cheer," from her garden or from Oprah's pulpit. In either case, Gilbert's congregation will be waiting for her to shine on.