About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#93: Committed

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert (New York: Viking, 2010)

"At the end of her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who had been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but they also swore to never, ever, under any circumstances, get married. (Both were survivors of previous bad divorces. Enough said.) But providence intervened one day in the form of the U.S. government, which -- after detaining Felipe at an American border crossing -- gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again.

"Having been effectively 'sentenced to wed,' Gilbert decided to tackle her fears of matrimony by becoming a student of the institution. Over the next ten months, as she and Felipe wandered haphazardly across Southeast Asia, waiting for the U.S. government to permit them to return to America and get married, the only thing she talked about, read about, or thought about was this perplexing subject.

Committed tells the story of one woman's efforts -- through contemplation, historical study, and extensive conversation with every soul she encountered along the way -- to make peace with marriage before she entered its estate once more. Told with Gilbert's trademark wit, intelligence, and compassion, the book attempts to 'turn on all the lights' when it comes to matrimony, frankly examining questions of compatibility, infatuation, fidelity, family tradition, social expectations, divorce risks, and humbling responsibilities. Myths are debunked; fears are unthreaded; historical perspective is sought; and romantic fantasies are ultimately exchanged for vital emotional compromises. In the end, the book becomes a kind of celebration of love -- with all the complexity and consequence that real love, in the real world, will always entail."

Table of Contents:
  1. Marriage and Surprises
  2. Marriage and Expectation
  3. Marriage and History
  4. Marriage and Infatuation
  5. Marriage and Women
  6. Marriage and Autonomy
  7. Marriage and Subversion
  8. Marriage and Ceremony
My Take:
Well-written and reasonably enjoyable, but not nearly so much so as Eat, Pray, Love. With that book, I was in a somewhat-skeptical camp; on one hand, it's hard to feel sympathy for someone so devastated by a bad divorce that she has to travel around the world for a year to find herself again, but on the other, Gilbert does write well, and as I'm not likely to have an extended sojourn in Bali or Italy any time in my own foreseeable future, reading someone else's travel memoir seemed like the next best thing.

Here, again, I enjoy the subject matter, as well as Gilbert's narrative style. Early on in the book, she visits with a houseful of Hmong women in rural Vietnam, and while she does a pretty good job of not romanticizing their poverty and isolation, she does capture something about the prevailing Western view of marriage that Pamela Haag, in Marriage Confidential, tries but never quite manages to nail down:
"But surely something has been lost, as well, in our modern and intensely private, closed-off homes. Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. In Hmong society, for instance, men and women don't spend all that much time together. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might well be love. But aside from that, men's and women's lives are quite firmly separated into the divided realms of their gender-specific tasks. Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. ...

"If you are a Hmong woman, then, you don't necessarily expect your husband to be your best friend, your most intimate confidant, your emotional advisor, your intellectual equal, your comfort in times of sorrow. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women -- from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers. A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. Kinship is to be found within arm's reach in any direction, and many female hands make light work, or at least lighter work, of the serious burdens of living."
I also found myself nodding in agreement at the clarity with which Gilbert describes the delicate dance of negotiation and compromise that happens in a marriage. Contemplating a solo trip to Cambodia, she muses,
"[H]e belongs to me now. And I belong to him, in exactly the same measure. Which does not mean that I cannot go to Cambodia by myself. It does mean, however, that I need to discuss my plans with Felipe before I leave -- as he would do with me were our situations reversed. If he objects to my desire to travel alone, I can argue my point with him, but I am obliged to at least listen to his objections. If he strenuously objects, I can just as strenuously overrule him, but I must select my battles -- as must he. If he protests my wishes too often, our marriage will surely break apart. On the other hand, if I constantly demand to live my life away from him, our marriage will just as surely break apart. It's delicate, then, this operation of mutual, quiet, almost velvety oppression, Out of respect, we must learn how to release and confine each other with the most exquisite care, but we should never -- not even for a moment -- pretend that we are not confined."
Well-turned phrases and personal anecdotes aside, though, there's really not a lot of new material here for anyone who's read some of Stephanie Coontz's work on the history of marriage (which Gilbert cites and acknowledges heavily). Decent narrative non-fiction, but not life-changing.

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