While I was reading Eat, Pray, Love, I found it difficult to pin down exactly why I found it as unpleasant as I did. For all outward appearances, it is an optimistic, feel-good story. And yet, something about it simply does not sit right. Upon some consideration, I landed on the word “convenience.”
I do not, of course, mean to suggest that Gilbert’s adventure is free of inconveniences – she is, after all, hit by a bus – but rather that her every experience is calculated to be of use to her. Gilbert’s entire trip is based on personal convenience; she picks and chooses aspects of the cultures she explores which suit her. Rather than truly immersing herself in the cultures of the countries she visits, she settles in with only that which she wanted to get out of her experience – pleasure in Italy, spirituality in India, and balance in Indonesia. This is evident in her decision to remain in the Ashram instead of further exploring India – she limits her experience drastically by focusing only on the religious aspects of the country. It is not clear, however, that she would have branched out even if she had continued to travel: as she explains her aborted plans, she insists that she “had specific temples and mosques and holy men [she] was all lined up to meet” (170). Even before coming to India, she had decided what her experience was going to be. In Bali, she focuses all of her energy for much of the trip on Felipe instead of learning about Indonesia.
Adding to the sense that Gilbert limits her trip to that which is convenient to her is the self-centered tone of her account. Throughout her journey, Gilbert’s focus is entirely introspective. She turns her every experience into a meditation on herself, and rather than expand her world, she reduces it to herself and her problems. There is, of course, no problem with self-discovery: in fact, it is an important part of life. But self-discovery at the expense of fantastic, vibrant cultures is tasteless, and comes across as disrespectful. In her retelling, she reduces these nations to opportunities for privileged members of society to focus on themselves in a foreign context. When she visits Sicily, she states explicitly that she “[doesn’t] want to insult anyone by drawing too much of a comparison between [herself] and the long-suffering Sicilian people,” but her attempt at humility here falls flat as she shamelessly proceeds to compare herself to the Sicilian people (115). She uses this visit as an occasion for self-reflection instead of an occasion for solemnity.
The problem I encounter with Eat, Pray, Love comes down the fact that it is written from an American perspective, for an American audience, about foreign cultures (and with the exception of Italy, it is in fact from a white perspective, for a white audience, about non-white cultures). The end result is a self-congratulatory variety of superficial cultural awareness: it amounts to an exclamation of "I am emotionally and spiritually fulfilled because I have seen another way of life" which completely disregards actual identity of these regions. There is something unsettlingly dismissive about the way in which Gilbert treats the cultures she portrays. She loves them – but does she love them for what they actually are, or for what they do for her?