The coyote girl's happy ending
When Elizabeth Gilbert swore off remarrying, the author never imagined the US would force her to break the vow. Nor, as she tells Helena de Bertodano, did she ever envisage that Hillary Clinton would read her book detailing how she fantasised about having sex with the former US president
The most unexpected thing about Elizabeth Gilbert is the ring on her wedding finger. This, after all, is the woman who made her name by writing about painfully extricating herself from her first marriage, going on a voyage of self-discovery over three continents, and swearing she will "never, ever, under any circumstances, marry" again.
The result of her travels was the 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, read by more than seven million people and now being turned into a film starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert. The book became a defining work of memoir, touching a nerve among readers looking for something more -- the narrator is like a globe-trotting Carrie Bradshaw cut loose from New York and trying to make sense of her life.
Towards the end of the book Gilbert meets Felipe, an older Brazilian man who becomes her lover. "Don't worry. I'm not going to chase you back to New York," Felipe reassures Gilbert. And this is one of the main attractions for her: a fun, no-strings-attached love affair, which, after the misery of her divorce, is all she wants.
Yet here she is, a few years later, living in the pretty village of Frenchtown, New Jersey -- with Felipe. And not just with Felipe, but married to Felipe and sharing a large Victorian house with a wraparound porch, four cats and a dog, and a garden full of flowers. She has even planted a vegetable garden, which Felipe harvests for ingredients for their dinners together.
"Felipe," writes Gilbert in her new book Committed, "has always believed a woman's place is in the kitchen sitting in a comfortable chair, with her feet up, drinking a glass of wine and watching her husband cook dinner." So not only is she married, but she is clearly married to Mr Perfect.
"I know, I know," says Gilbert, laughing sheepishly when we meet in Frenchtown. For a woman happy to bare the most intimate details, she is curiously guarded about the inside of her home.
So we meet at a nearby warehouse where she and Felipe have set up a business importing jewellery and artefacts from around the world. Felipe's real name is Jose Nunes: "The name change is just enough for him to feel like the character in the book is not him -- which is a delusion, because that character is him entirely, to the marrow!
"We were sentenced to marriage by the Department of Homeland Security," explains Gilbert. When she came back to America five years ago she and Felipe set up home together but stuck to their plan not to marry, Felipe leaving the country every three months as his visa required. "Our vow never to marry had cloaked the two of us in all the emotional security that we required in order to try once more at love," she writes in Committed.
But one day, when they were returning to America from a trip together, Felipe was told he could no longer enter as he had made too many consecutive visits. The only way to secure him a more permanent visa, said the Homeland Security officer, was to marry.
"My heart sank, almost audibly," Gilbert writes. Felipe, who is 17 years older than Gilbert and also divorced, had no more inclination to remarry than she did. But they wanted to be together and they wanted to live in America. So marry they did. And Gilbert, of course, makes a book out of it, exploring the whole concept of marriage in different cultures and her own negative feelings about it.
I wonder how she responds to detractors such as the one who dismissed her as "insufferably self-regarding" and suggested her next book be entitled "Me, Me, Me".
"Fair enough," she says, laughing gamely. "How can I possibly argue against that. I just wrote two memoirs. We all dwell on ourselves insufferably, but obviously people with maybe a bit more decorum don't go writing books about it."
In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert, hurtling from her disintegrating marriage, starts another relationship, which unravels so fast that all she is left with is "another man thoroughly exhausted by me". So she decides to renounce men for a while and spend a year travelling. She kicks off her trip by spending four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (Eat). This is no conventional travelogue: "I'm a bit ashamed to admit this, but I did not visit a single museum during my entire four months in Italy. (Oh, man -- it's even worse than that. I have to confess that I did go to one museum: the National Museum of Pasta)."
She moves on to India, where she spends four months trying to find her spirituality (Pray), scrubbing temple floors and bonding with a Texan who advises her, "You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be".
Finally she gets to Bali, where enjoyment and spirituality merge and she meets Felipe, who declares, "I am wildly in love with you".
Gilbert seems to have no limits on what she is prepared to reveal. In Eat, Pray, Love she even writes about the fantasies she uses to help her masturbate. "I don't regret writing about that at all," she says.
Not even the mention of Bill Clinton? "That I do regret," she says. "I never imagined when I wrote it that more than two dozen people would even read the book, let alone that one of them would be Bill Clinton's wife. And then she said she liked the book! Doesn't she have enough to deal with without knowing that I jerked off thinking about her husband? That's terrible. If I was ever in the same room as her I would avoid her."
Gilbert says her writing voice has matured. "It's an older version of the same voice. The difference in tone is like the difference between love and marriage. I can never replicate that voice of innocent glee; that person has gone and that voice has gone. Eat, Pray, Love is all candlelit, and Committed is like turning on the lights in the bedroom."
Nearly two years after the wedding, Gilbert says she couldn't be happier. "I love being with Felipe more than anyone in the world. I search myself for doubt about this, but I find none: home is still the best place to be and Felipe is still the best person to be with."
I ask if she and Felipe ever disagree . "Rarely, really rarely. We're both really conflict-averse. We have tension; we have silences. One thing I've learnt over the years is not to credit or blame whomever I happen to be standing next to for whatever I happen to be feeling at any given moment. I'm 40 now and I've seen enough of the world to know I only have myself to blame for my own pissy state of mind. We have very few pressures on us that other couples have: we have no children, we're financially stable, we're educated, we're healthy, we're nice to each other. So if I can't find a way to be cheerful, I really have to point at myself."
Gilbert's determination not to have children contributed to the break-up of her first marriage. "I am more and more certain I am not meant to be a mother," she says today. "It's no accident that I fell in love with somebody who was much older and who had grown children."
Instead, she says, she likes to use her mothering instincts in a different way. "Not having children has freed me up to build an umbrella under which a whole bunch of adult people can stand. I can help people to start a business, build an art gallery, write a novel, pay off credit-card debts -- all of which I can do because I am not obliged to pour everything into my offspring. I consider that mothering in a way."
Gilbert's friends say she is generous and fun. "She has a certain golden retriever puppy quality to her," says her friend Ann Patchett, also an author. "She is so enthusiastic and vibrant that at first you don't realise how intelligent she is, too; she has a really fine mind."
Gilbert grew up on a family Christmas-tree farm in Connecticut, the younger of two daughters of a chemical engineer and a nurse. She wrote in her first book that she was the "loved and lucky one, the favourite of both family and destiny".
In Committed, Gilbert is equally revealing about her family, lambasting her father for his refusal to give up just two days of work to help their mother at a crucial time in her career -- a decision that cost her mother her much-loved job. "No, I don't celebrate my dad in this book," she agrees. "He's the flawed, flawed, flawed father whom I love and the husband whom my mom loves. I wasn't sure how he would take it. He said it was painful to read; it brought out memories of a difficult time. But he said it was true and it was important that it be told."
Gilbert studied political science at New York University, then went travelling, working in between to pay for her travels; she waitressed, worked on a dude ranch and bartended. She says she always knew she wanted to write: "I've never found anything more interesting."
In 1993, her first short story was published in Esquire and her career took off. As well as articles and short stories she wrote a novel and a biography, each of which "sold upwards of a dozen copies", she says, laughing. The article she wrote about her bartending days inspired the film Coyote Ugly.
By that time she was with her first husband, whom she had met while bartending, and they married when she was 25. He was a spendthrift, she a saver. In retrospect, she says, she married thoughtlessly. "I thought it would be cool and fun. We were a party couple and created this atmosphere of fun. That's what we were fabulous at; everything else we were really bad at."
Now, of course, she never has to worry about money again. "I am just so goddamn grateful for it. I cannot overstate the amount of very welcome ease it has brought to my life, having lived for years from pay cheque to pay cheque with that constant wolf-at-the-heels feeling that you're going to stumble and you'll be finished."
The only cloud on the horizon is the publication next autumn of her first husband's memoir, Displaced, in which he will describe his own global journey of self-discovery following their divorce.
"He's doing what he thinks he needs to do, and if anything there's something a little bit healthy about it. People have the right to tell their stories and, truly, of all the responses he could have, this is the one I find least aggressive."
Does she worry that he will bring up material she would rather keep buried? "There is bottomless material that both of us could dredge up on each other. I would be very surprised if that's what he did, but clearly there is nothing I can do about it, and, moreover, I am happy to admit whatever I've ever done. The only reason I didn't go through all that in my book is because I didn't want to expose him. I didn't think it was right."
Nevertheless, she does expose almost everyone else around her, and I ask if she has lost any friends along the way. "I've tried to be really careful. I think the people who are least happy are people whom I had lost already, like my husband and ex-boyfriend."
Sometimes, she admits, she does feel that she is living her life to write about it, with the people around her as characters in her work. "Clearly, I am using my life in this form. I don't know how to figure things out except by writing about them; that's the most efficient way I've ever learnt to sort through stuff. But I feel pretty sorted through by now, and I am no longer comfortable with bringing the people around me into my books. I have a very strong feeling -- a conviction, even -- that I have written enough about my life."
From now on, Gilbert insists she is returning to fiction. "I won't say I'll never write about myself again, but it's very unlikely. I've been humbled so many times by my hubris that I veer away from words like 'never' and 'always', and don't take anything for granted anymore."
Not even her marriage? "I recognise that there is always the possibility of divorce -- all you can do is knock wood and cross fingers and hope that things go well."