'Women's lives are happier if they don't get married'
'Eat, Pray, Love' author Elizabeth Gilbert tells why the heroine in her latest novel thrives on her work, not relationships
It's a Sunday afternoon and Elizabeth Gilbert is walking her dog along a river in New Jersey. What kind of a dog does she have? "I wish I knew!" she laughs, and it is a clean and pure laugh, like burbling water rising from an inexhaustible source.
Gilbert, who will be in Dublin for a reading tomorrow evening, seems carefree, happy, open and generous, exactly the kind of person you would hope comes out the other end of the catharsis of a book like Eat, Pray, Love.
When Gilbert set out to travel the world after the traumatic break-up of her first marriage and to write about it in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she couldn't have guessed at the success that awaited. The book sold 10 million copies, was made into a film starring Julia Roberts and Gilbert became a kind of self-help guru for middle-aged women adrift in their own lives.
She followed the book up with another memoir, Committed, a kind of what-happened-next crossed with a treatise on the institution of marriage. When Gilbert's Brazilian partner Jose Nunes (better known to readers of Eat, Pray, Love as Felipe) was deported, marriage was the only way the two could be together. Despite Gilbert's aversion to the institution, she remarried and the pair now live in a small town in New Jersey, and run a furniture store called Two Buttons.
Ten years on from the journey that started in Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert appears content and has just written what could be her best book yet.
"A large part of what I was striving to do on Eat, Pray, Love was to get myself in order so I could get out of my own way," she says.
"I've always stood up against the idea that if you're not suffering for your art, you're not an artist. I'm profoundly against that. I think the more you clear yourself out of that stuff, the better you can be creatively. Depression takes so much energy, and shame and despair burn so much of your life and that is one of the biggest motivations to just clear that stuff out."
The Signature Of All Things is only Gilbert's second work of fiction in 13 years. Set in the 1800s, it tells the story of Alma, a gifted botanist and towering intellect in an era when intelligent women were considered unmarriageable. Alma finds fulfilment in her work investigating the behaviour of mosses. While this is historical fiction, fans of Gilbert's memoirs will find her central theme of self-discovery runs through this book too.
"I wanted to write about a woman who loved her work, or her vocation," says Gilbert. "And I say that as a woman whose vocation has saved her life more than once. When women don't get everything they want in their emotional lives, when their relationships may falter, the work itself is the meaning that ties their lives together and I feel that way about my own work."
Like Gilbert, Alma doesn't follow the traditional female trajectory of marriage and children. At one point in the novel, Alma's childhood nanny tells her not marrying and having children is not the worst thing that could happen to a woman. Gilbert agrees.
"We live surrounded by the romantic message that the story ends at marriage. It's still how most books and movies end but the studies show unmarried women have happier, longer lives and the reverse is true for men. If you are a woman and you want to have a happy, healthy, contented, non-depressed life, your best chance is not to be married."
The Signature Of All Things also functions as a kind of cautionary tale. When Alma's research of mosses leads her to the same conclusions as Charles Darwin, she holds off on publishing her paper as she feels it is not quite perfect.
"We live in a culture that tells us we're supposed to be perfect. Perfect doesn't exist. Throwing ideas and products into the world that are not quite perfect never stops men from putting ideas forward and it doesn't stop them raising their hands in meetings and it doesn't stop them demanding attention or asking for raises.
"I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who said, 'done is better than good'. It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be done."
If Gilbert's 34-year-old self could see her now – financially independent, critically and commercially successful, happily married – what would she think?
"It's exactly what my 34-year-old self wanted to be doing but was unable to then because she was such a mess. This book is a great celebration of where I've come to. It's a gesture of gratitude to Eat, Pray, Love because it financed this book. It's the only way to honour how lucky I am."
Gilbert hasn't started work on her next book yet but she has two competing ideas in mind.
"One idea is for a novel and one is for a non-fiction book. When I settle down, I'll have to have a strong word with them both but they're just growing in my head at the moment."
Meanwhile, she is looking forward to being back in Ireland. "It's one of the mossiest countries in the world so hopefully I will see some moss!"
Elizabeth Gilbert will be reading from 'The Signature of All Things' tomorrow at 7.30pm in Liberty Hall Theatre at a Dublin Writer's Festival event. Tickets from www.dublinwritersfestival.com