It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery became a bestseller. Now, a new book, Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It, looks at the stories of 50 people who were so inspired by Gilbert’s adventure that they set off on their own crazy quests. There’s a man who leaves the seminary and embraces his sexual identity. There’s a woman in search of the perfect pizza in, er, New Zealand. And there’s an awful lot of post-divorce travel. (Which kind of makes you understand the importance of a good title. If Elizabeth Gilbert had called the original “Travels Following My Divorce”, I wonder if it would have chimed in the way it did.)
I have no shame in saying this: I loved Eat, Pray, Love and I ate up every word of it. I liked that it was unashamedly personal and recklessly open and not afraid to be self-indulgent. (At our most honest, we are all – really – self-indulgent.) I never understood people who hated it, although I could see how it could be annoying. Especially the bit about the underwear shopping in Rome. And I could see that it would be easy to feel so jealous of Elizabeth Gilbert that you would resent her. After all, who gets to take a risk on a project like that and have it pay off so big?
As Gilbert has said herself, Eat, Pray, Love became something much bigger than her. People wanted to own it for themselves. She had to allow it to be whatever they wanted, which also included letting people hate it and criticise it and think it the most naff New Age nonsense ever to sell in excess of 10 million copies.
One of the things it taught me was how to become troll-proof, how not to let criticism influence what you decide to try in life, how to do things even if they might be a mistake
But, underneath all that, a lot of people were being secretly inspired, including me. One of the things it taught me before anybody was even talking about it was how to become troll-proof, how not to let criticism (including from yourself) influence what you decide to try in life, how to do things even if they might be a mistake. It struck me in the book that Gilbert might be fragile, but she always did what she wanted, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. The same came out in her reactions when the book was immensely successful (and therefore a target): it is what it is. Somehow, this seeped in.
The year after I read the book, I discovered stand-up comedy and eventually went on to do 100 gigs in 100 consecutive nights, which, yes, I admit, was a manifestation of the idea that “Eat, Pray, Love made me do it”. Except Gilbert is a bit better at destination planning than I am. Her experience was in beautiful cities, atmospheric temples and gorgeous beaches. Mine was in the disused cellars of pubs which smelled of decaying corpses. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
Most of all, though, Gilbert’s book was about being lost, not knowing where to turn, but forging on anyway. It was also about being a hopeful mess. She fixed all that by, yes, eating in Italy, praying in India and (spoiler alert) finding someone to love in Bali. But, long-term, she fixed things in the most interesting way possible by becoming someone who is an authority on being a glorious, happy mess and who is never really “fixed” at all, but always looking for the next exciting thing. Happy birthday, Eat, Pray, Love. Like all the best friends, you’ve been the best mixture of infuriating, inspiring and – most important of all – not perfect.