Two months ago, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of 2006’s Eat Pray Love, took to her Facebook page to make an announcement. “I am separating from the man whom many of you know as ‘Felipe’ – the man whom I fell in love with at the end of the Eat Pray Love journey,” she wrote. “He has been my dear companion for over 12 years, and they have been wonderful years. Our split is very amicable. Our reasons are very personal.”
Last week, those very personal reasons for Gilbert’s split with Jose Nunes became clear. On Wednesday she revealed that she is in love with a woman – her longterm friend Rayya Elias; that Elias has been diagnosed with terminal cancer; and that they plan to be inseparable for the rest of their time together. “Death – or the prospect of death – has a way of clearing away everything that is not real, and in that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth.”
Elizabeth and her partner Rayya Elias
There are two horrible aspects to this news – divorce and cancer – but when I read about Gilbert’s new chapter, I cheered. Last week was not an emotionally easy week in my life, which runs a meandering path of its own, and to see a woman of huge public influence make such a bold and unconventional move felt comforting and optimistic. It seemed to me to neatly illustrate something that Gilbert herself would surely advocate for: the realisation that happy endings are a nonsense.
I say that not because we can’t be happy, but because in life, there is only one ending (and I’m hoping mine’s a good 65 years away). It’s not that Harry and Sally, for example, wouldn’t get together in real life and love each other very much; it’s that getting together would not be in any sense the conclusion of their story. After the wedding (with the coconut cake with chocolate sauce served on the side), with luck there would be decades of future events, which would encompass all of life’s highs and lows: companionship, arguments, money troubles, happy anniversaries, bereavements.
To see a woman of huge public influence make such a bold and unconventional move felt comforting and optimistic
Our storytelling culture encourages us to expect the kind of straightforward narrative arc we see on screen, and that’s one of the reasons that adulthood can often be so painful. “I thought I’d be making good money by now,” we think, or “I thought I’d have two kids,” – and that disappointment, the shock of an unscheduled change of plan, really wounds us. But life isn’t organised in this way, and we must all learn not to expect it: it’s an unpredictable cycle of the good, the bad and the ugly, and therein lies its magic. The happy ending implies a stasis, a permanence, that is never found in real life. Everything changes: that’s the most reliable phenomenon of all.
When Gilbert met her husband-to-be at the end of Eat Pray Love, a global audience sighed with contentment. Finally her journey was over, her questions had been answered, and she was in some sense complete. But her relationship with Nunes – which seemingly was very successful – has revealed itself not to be the end of her story. For all we know, she may never have assumed that it would be.
Gilbert’s work is not for everyone. Sometimes her earnestness can be overwhelming – when I hear her speak about gratitude, truth-telling and transformation, I’m torn between nodding and cringing. But one thing she has spoken about at length is the importance of following our curiosity rather than our fear, and this latest move feels like a celebration of that. Undeniably, this woman has wisdom to share.
More than 10 million copies of Eat Pray Love have been sold, in more than 30 languages. To its many cheerleaders, Gilbert is a living legend, and last week she delivered again – by demonstrating that, while discovery continues forever, “happily ever after” is nothing more than a pleasing series of words.