A stapled receipt falls out of the used book I’m reluctantly reading. It’s from an Italian restaurant on East 42nd Street. Dinner for one. A ten-dollar glass of chardonnay and a $30 plate of tagliata al rosemary. I wonder if she had stopped reading on page 103 and never finished. I wonder if she was reading this book, the section on Rome, in an Italian restaurant while eating a $50 meal alone.
From my relationship-centric myopia everything about this secondhand mystery feels like heartbreak to me. Maybe reinvention? Or maybe just dinner. I assume she didn’t share this meal with a friend who paid separately since waiters started acting outraged about ten years ago when any size party asks for separate checks, like it is a most egregious breach of etiquette. So I imagine her reading and lingering over her pasta with the late sun shining through her wine glass.
And maybe this is what everyone loved about Eat Pray Love so much — vicarious empowerment. Our albeit self-indulgent protagonist expanded our collective image of what unmarried women in their 30s can do. Who they can be. That they are not any more bound by their relationships than they are defined by them. Nor are they (we) automatically spinsters we can only pity. So perhaps a woman, (I’m certain it was a woman), can eat alone at a great restaurant and not be lonely. Perhaps she can relish the success that allows her to buy a $16 paperback and experience a story over a late dinner at Osteria Laguna.
I flip through the book hoping for more clues about who read this before I ordered it from Thriftbooks, refusing to buy it new. I wonder what kind of woman she might be or if we have anything in common. And I’m Nancy Drew delighted to find a theater ticket. Another clue! Three nights before the Osteria Laguna she was already in New York. She had center orchestra seats for In The Heights at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Maybe she didn’t go alone. Maybe her date used his ticket as a bookmark too.
Maybe it doesn’t matter.
And maybe some of us need a navel-gazing divorcee to travel the world and show us a different path besides the neat and clean marriage and mortgage. Maybe the same trajectory isn’t meant for everyone and maybe — just maybe — that’s ok. It doesn’t have to mean you failed at love, and therefore at life.
I read the book two years after I went to New York alone. I spent four or five days wandering the streets by myself and the nights drinking wine alone in a hotel room in Jersey. I helped an elderly woman from Paris get to the tourism agency she couldn’t find. She was visibly lost and hovering near the Port Authority — where no good thing happens on TV. I wandered all the way south to the courthouse where so much Law & Order grandstanding takes place. I saw the Seinfeld restaurant and the Soup Nazi soup place and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I learned it is affectionally called St. John the Unfinished.
Much to my surprise, the hop-on/hop-off city bus tour was well worth the $50. It was a comprehensive birds-eye tour of a city I’ve spent my whole life adoring on TV and in movies. And in one aerial afternoon I suddenly and spatially understood where it all took place. But my week exploring alone didn’t yield any self-discovery that would merit a very personal autobiography.
By the time I started reading Eat Pray Love it had been out for ten years and Julia Roberts had already done the movie. I had adored Rolf Potts’ review of it and the fact that my ex referred to it thereafter as Binge Fuck Nap. I hissed at any woman who gushed that I would just love this book. That I simply had to read it. Actually. Your feminist tenets dictate that I, a woman, do not have to do anything just because I’m female. To oblige me to do something just because of my gender is intrinsically sexist. So I don’t have to return my vagina if I don’t read this damn book. And I certainly don’t have to hold it on high as my manifesto.
But alas. I am reading it. And like Nickelback, there must be something to it if I’m thinking about it this much and writing about it so much. Maybe I secretly love it? I’m not loving her journey or her perspective but Gilbert’s strength is clearly in narrative nonfiction and I’m surprised to find how much I enjoy her tangents. Maybe the woman who read it before me did too. But I suspect that if nothing else it will remind me of the importance of not limiting your self-worth exclusively to your relationships.
I will finish this, tripe or not, with an open mind and see if I can’t find what resonated so deeply with so many women. But I also suspect I would find my mystery woman’s story more compelling than Elizabeth Gilbert’s. Maybe she’s an author too …