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Three-part harmony

Erika Schickel is the author of the forthcoming "You're Not the Boss of Me."

“I don’t want to be married anymore. I don’t want to live in this big house. I don’t want to have a baby.” This is the dark mantra Elizabeth Gilbert repeated while prostrate on her bathroom floor, alone and sobbing, as her estranged husband slept in another room. Trapped in the soul-crushing pursuit of living somebody else’s dream, she beseeched God to tell her what to do. A voice answered: “Go back to bed, Liz.”

An acrimonious divorce and a tragic love affair ensued. From this nadir, Gilbert, journalist and author of three books (“Pilgrims,” “Stern Men” and “The Last American Man”) went from knowing what she didn’t want to exploring what she did want, as she writes in “Eat, Pray, Love.” She wanted to speak Italian (“it was the only thing I could imagine bringing me any pleasure right now”) and she wanted a spiritual teacher. While on assignment in Indonesia, Gilbert tells a Balinese medicine man, “I want to be with God all the time. But I don’t want to be a monk, or totally give up worldly pleasures.”

The medicine man tells her she will one day return to Bali, and this is all the permission she needs to give up her job and life in New York and embark on a yearlong quest for balance and self-realization. But she finds herself sorting through conflicting impulses: “What was more important? The part of me that wanted to eat veal in Venice? Or the part of me that wanted to be waking up long before dawn in the austerity of an Ashram to begin a long day of meditation and prayer?.... As for how to balance the urge for pleasure against the longing for devotion ... well, surely there was a way to learn that trick ... I maybe could learn this from the Balinese.” She sets out to explore these different aspects of her nature, spending four months each in Italy, India and Indonesia.

Threes are powerful numbers “as anyone who has ever studied either the Holy Trinity or a simple barstool can plainly see.” Gilbert ups the karmic ante further by organizing her book into three sections with 36 tales each (which she wrote in her 36th year). Altogether, there are 108 chapters (a three-digit multiple of three), which equal the number of prayer beads on a japa mala, used by Buddhists during meditation. “Eat, Pray, Love” is in fact a meditation on love in its many forms: love of food, language, humanity, God and, most meaningful for Gilbert, love of self.

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Her first stop is Rome, where she arrives bone-thin and heartbroken and falls gratefully into the soft bosom of la dolce vita. Eschewing tourist handbooks, she lets her tongue be her guide. She slurps up Italian, a language she loves in an almost fetishistic way. “Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me.” When she succeeds at flirting in Italian, she revels: “I can speak this language! My God -- I have decanted myself! I have uncorked my tongue, and Italian is pouring forth!”

Gilbert’s tongue also gets a workout in Italy’s many trattorias, pizzerias and gelaterias. She gains 23 pounds and, after a lifetime of American workaholism, discovers the principle of bel far niente -- the beauty of doing nothing. This freedom transforms her from a frazzled and anxious waif into a relaxed sensualist. “When I realized that the only question at hand was, ‘How do I define pleasure?’ and that I was truly in a country where people would permit me to explore that question freely, everything changed. Everything became ... delicious.”

It is Gilbert’s unreserved ability to relish that makes this such a delectable read. At one point, she and a friend find themselves in Naples having a transcendent pizza experience: "[T]hese pies we have just ordered.... are making us lose our minds. I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair.”

The only pleasure Gilbert denies herself is a love affair. Having led her adult life in a twirl of passion and heartbreak, Gilbert is determined to explore herself without the distorting lens of romance. The anomaly of being a self-determined celibate in the Italian capital makes her a permanent outsider in Rome.

Of course, celibacy is much easier to maintain on an ashram. Gilbert arrives in India with a working grasp of yoga and meditation, but the rigors of ashram life quickly lock her in a full nelson with her demons. It is here that Gilbert, calmed by her four months of happiness in Rome, really gets down to the deep, grueling work of soul-searching.

She finds that even an hour of meditation can be daunting. “I thought about the relentless thought-processing, soul-devouring machine that is my brain, and wondered how on earth I was ever going to master it. Then I remembered that line from “Jaws” and couldn’t help smiling: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ ”

She is buoyed by a man she calls “Richard from Texas,” a wry, straight-dealing yogi who has been through her psychic purse and offers up pearls such as, “Honey -- Ray Charles could see your control issues!” One of Gilbert’s greatest strengths is finding friends. Even while denying herself the sensual pleasures she found in Rome, she is nourished by the people around her, who offer her wisdom, humor and succor.

Gilbert’s journey is full of mystical dreams, visions and uncanny coincidences. They crescendo in India, causing her to conclude that destiny is “a play between divine grace and willful self-effort.... We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses -- one foot is on the horse called ‘fate,’ the other on the horse called ‘free will.’ ”

Gilbert’s hegira is nothing short of that circus trick. She does encounter God one day in India as she stands at the back of a meditation hall. “I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute.... I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void.... The void was God.” God tells her, “You may return here once you have fully come to understand that you are always here.” In other words, that voice she heard in her bathroom was her own; God is the atman, the true, unchanging self within us all, a supreme force of love.

Yet for every ounce of self-absorption her classically New Age journey demands, Gilbert is ready with an equal measure of humor, intelligence and self-deprecation. Although her focus is turned inward, her writer’s eye remains wide open, hungrily taking in details that animate both her inner and outer journeys.

After the giddy revelations of “Eat” and “Pray,” “Love” comes as something of an anticlimax. She goes looking for balance in Indonesia, hoping to cement all she has learned in the previous eight months. “I keep making prayers that are really vows, presenting my state of harmony to God and saying, ‘This is what I would like to hold on to. Please help me memorize this feeling of contentment and help me always support it.’ ” Although she forges several new friendships and embraces Balinese life, her hard-won happiness lacks the drama of her prior misery.

A relationship with Felipe, the “Love” she finds in Bali, provides her book with a little old-fashioned sexual tension. A Brazilian jewelry importer, Felipe is a patient, loving person, handsome on the inside as well as the outside. This wholesome romance pales in comparison to other passions she has found, and her depiction of Felipe lacks the snap and specificity she brings to the many vivid characters she encounters along her journey.

This does not take much away from the many pleasures to be found in “Eat, Pray, Love.” Gilbert’s wry, unfettered account of her extraordinary journey lets even the most cynical reader dare to dream of someday finding God deep in a meditation cave in India, or, perhaps over a transcendent slice of pizza.


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