St. Paul wrote that it is better to marry than to burn — but not by much.
Elizabeth Gilbert used to agree with him.
That view of marriage as only a bit better than hell won't surprise the legions of fans who made Gilbert's 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, a touchstone for women. The book has stayed on bestseller lists for three years with more than 5 million copies sold (and a movie version with Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem to come this year).
Eat, Pray, Love began with the author's realization that she was miserable in her marriage. After escaping via an even more miserable divorce, with a side trip into a miserable rebound relationship, she spent a year rebuilding herself. Despite all that misery, Eat, Pray, Love is an engaging, sensual and witty account of her journey — one with which many readers identified.
Determined not to fall in love again, she of course did in the book's third act, with a free-spirited but charmingly domestic Brazilian 17 years her senior, whom she met in the impossibly romantic setting of Bali.
Gilbert's new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, is something of a sequel. Her lover, Jose Nunes, whom she calls Felipe in both books, is also a veteran of a failed marriage, and the two, she writes, "made a rather unusual pact with each other, right from the beginning of our love story. We had sworn with all our hearts to never, ever, under any circumstances, marry."
For a while, it worked beautifully. He's a jewelry and gemstone importer, she's a writer, so both of them traveled often for work anyway. They spent time in Bali, Brazil, Australia and the United States, happily apart or blissfully together. After a while they rented a house near her sister's home in Philadelphia, and he dutifully left the country every so often because he was here — legally — on a 90-day work visa.
At first it's enough to make you put the book down out of sheer envy: She gets the bestseller and the swell guy? Then one day the two of them land in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, where a kind but unrelenting Homeland Security official takes Felipe into custody and, after six hours of questioning, tells him and Gilbert that he can no longer enter the United States. Ever.
He isn't breaking any laws, exactly, but the visa he holds wasn't meant to be used that way. If they ever want to live together in this country, the immigration guy tells them, "The two of you need to get married."
Faced with that "arranged marriage," the ever-industrious Gilbert goes to work on two projects. One is wrestling with a mountain of paperwork from four continents to clear their marriage. The process is slowed even more when Homeland Security adds a new requirement that U.S. citizens must undergo an FBI check in order to marry a foreign national.
Her other project was, eventually, this book. If she had to wed against her will, Gilbert decided to "search through the complex history of Western marriage until I could find some small place of comfort in there for myself. Such comfort is not necessarily always an easy thing to find."
The result is both a memoir of the 10 months Gilbert and Nunes spend trying to get married, and an often surprising history of the venerable institution. If Gilbert's discoveries have a theme, it's this: There's no such thing as "traditional" marriage. It may be the most enduring of human relationships, but it is also one of the most mutable.
Marriage is all about evolution, she writes. "It changes over the centuries . . . constantly, surprisingly, swiftly. It's not even a safe bet to describe marriage in the most reductively simple terms as a sacred union between one man and one woman."
Gilbert chooses to steer clear of the complications of polygamy (even the abundant biblical examples). But she does focus on the fact, reflected in that quote from Paul, that for the first millennium of its history, Christianity did not consider marriage sacred at all. It preached that celibacy, as practiced by Jesus, was the best hope of heaven. People who made the inferior choice to wed did so without benefit of blessing; marriage — and divorce — were social and financial matters, not religious ones.
Then, around the 13th century, the Church got involved in marriage, at first as a way to exert control over the fates and fortunes of royalty. Gilbert catalogs the ways that all matrimony became more restrictive under the purview of church and state in Western culture.
Laws forbade marriage between people of different classes or religions for centuries. Slaves in the American South were not allowed to marry, because they had no right to make a contract. Laws against marriage between people of different races stayed on the books in this country until a Supreme Court decision in 1967.
Gilbert also explores the long-lasting reverberations of coverture, the system of laws that erased women's legal identities when they married. Although coverture dates back to the Middle Ages, as recently as the 1970s American women could not open checking accounts or borrow money without their husbands' permission, and "marital rape" laws allowing men to legally commit any type of sexual violence against their wives were in effect into the '80s in some states.
Gilbert looks at the shape of contemporary marriage and finds more surprises. That fabled 50 percent divorce rate? Bogus; people who get married as teenagers have a 75 percent rate that skews it wildly for everyone else. Marriage as chiefly a means of procreation? The rate of childlessness for women is around 50 percent in modern Western culture, and in all eras and cultures has never been below 10 percent. And Gilbert theorizes that gay marriage, far from "destroying" the institution, might well be the next evolutionary change that will save it.
She explores the neuroscience of infatuation, which affects our brains much like a drug. "It is wise in such circumstances to heed the advice of the venerable North American philosopher Pamela Anderson: 'Never get married on vacation.' " And she discovers that perhaps the best way to determine whether your prospective husband will be faithful is to be sure he has a robust vasopressin receptor gene.
Between the chapters of marital history, Gilbert describes the tensions and tender moments of her relationship with Felipe during the months they spend waiting to marry. For a time, they racket around Southeast Asia on buses and trains, staying in cheap hotel rooms (Eat, Pray, Love was not yet a hit) while she interviews Hmong grandmothers and Laotian entrepreneurs about their marriages.
The pair worry about money, argue about where to live, hash out a prenuptial agreement and agree that they don't want kids. They try to reconcile very different upbringings, hers in a thrifty Yankee family, while his Brazilian father once "traded a pretty nice car for a fishing pole." She reminisces movingly about her mother's and grandmother's marriages and sacrifices.
Gilbert and Nunes' legal situation — "more like something out of Kafka than out of Austen" — isn't one many couples will encounter, but their serious, loving desire to take control of the shape of their own marriage is not a bad model for anyone planning to wed.
So, amid all that less than encouraging history of marriage, does Gilbert find her comfort zone? She does, and from a rather unlikely source. Not to go all Charlotte Bronte on you, but: Reader, she marries him. And just as it was in Eat, Pray, Love, the journey is one that entertains and illuminates.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.