When I first noticed this book floating around my house, about a year and a half ago, I groaned inwardly that someone had paid money for some new-agey crap about a woman on a spiritual journey and blahdeblah. I finally gave in and read for two reasons: everyone I know kept raving about it and I was bored.
I started the book while hungover, and took this as a bad omen that I was about to subject myself to 108 chapters of woo-woo nonsense. I finished it with a feeling of admiration and introspection. Sure, I can't spend a year living in three countries (Italy, India and Indonesia) in a quest to "find myself," but the author treats the experience with an open, frank and funny tone as she takes the reader through innumberable plates of pasta, days spent in an Ashram, and the creation of a unique circle of friends in Bali.
Gilbert begins at the beginning, which I find refreshing, since so many of these types of books begin in media res and leave me with an initial sense of confusion. One night, while lying sobbing on the bathroom floor with her husband sleeping in the other room, the author finds herself mired in a pit of despair because she hates her marriage and her perfect life as a respected and published travel writer living in a perfect suburb of New York City in a perfect American Dream-style home. She knows just one thing - she wants out of her marriage and out of her life. It's not a suicide type "Oh God, I wish I could just drink a bleach cocktail and check out for good;" it's more of a "This is not my life and I need to figure out what it is supposed to be." The divorce is ugly, messy, and brutal, while her subsequent romance with a younger man meant to be a rebound develops into a co-dependent struggle as she finds herself disappearing into him. Gilbert decides to grab onto her life with both hands, no matter how much it hurts, and get away from all of it until she figures out who she is. I found this to be very touching because, as Americans, we tend to define ourselves by our careers and the people with whom we surround ourselves, by the movies we like and the takeout places we frequent and the sports teams we cheer on with almost manic intensity (I'm a married lawyer Sox fan who likes horror and sci-fi, with an affinity for Hunan cuisine and deep-dish pizza). But who are you? Who am I? In my opinion, this accounts for not only the sterotypical "midlife crisis" but also the recent emergence of what the pop psychologists have named the "quarterlife crisis." No one seems to be comfortable in their own skins. Therefore, I have a certain admiration for the few among us who actually put in the effort to become comfortable and banish the boogeymen who live under the bed.
Gilbert's first stop is Italy, where she stays for four months learning the language, sampling (or rather inhaling) the food, traveling to the notable and not-so-notable Italian cities and towns. With each passing day, she becomes less of a tourist and more of a resident, staying in a rented apartment, frequenting the local merchants, and cultivating a charming little circle of chums who share in her journey and encourage her. At the end of her sojourn, she sets off for India with a newfound sense of pride in herself as she realizes that she is beginning to become her own person, stepping out of the shadow in which she spent so many years. (Yeah, I just got a *little* self-helpy/new-ageish on you.)
Next up is India, where Gilbert throws herself into furthering her basic Yogic training. I have to admit that this section bored me a bit because I've never really seen the point of meditation and chanting in Sanskrit and the thought of sitting in a cross-legged position for hours on end kind of makes my brain fall asleep. However, Gilbert embraces the lifestyle, which includes scrubbing floors and working as the Ashram cruise director, of sorts, while continuing with her meditation and chanting and searching for God. She describes a few moments of succeeding in finding herself at one with the universe and admits to making out with a tree (I know how that sounds; but it's something I might do while completely drunk so I can't really judge), and if she believes it, then it must be truth for her. Who am I to say? She leaves the Ashram with equal parts hope, insight, and sadness, and heads for Bali to study with a famous healer and further her spiritual education.
I would have to admit that this phase of Gilbert's journey is the most interesting to me in the entire book, but it also took the most time for me to get through because there is far more action than in the previous two. Besides developing a friendship with the medicine man, she finds a close friend in a healer named Wayan, Wayan's children, and finds a small group of expats like herself, one of whom (*spoiler*) she takes as a lover - how Carrie Bradshaw of her - even though she swore herself to a vow of celibacy for the year. I don't want to give away too much of this last leg of Gilbert's journey, but I feel that I should point out that it is in Indonesia that she truly discovers the kind of woman, and person, that she truly is, and I believe that it is largely a result of her learning to trust both her heart and the people around her that gives her the freedom to do so.
When I really thought about it, I was actually a little jealous because I wish I could devote just a small amount of time in my life traveling and discovering who I really am. I joke with friends and family about what I want to be "when I grow up," but the truth of the matter is that I'm looking down the barrel of 30 and I'm not sure who or what I am now. I'm not getting all emo about it since I can figure it out right here at home, if I truly commit to it, but who wouldn't like to visit interesting and exotic places while discovering just who we truly are inside? (Okay, maybe a little emo.)