Of everyone I’ve ever interviewed, none of them has inspired people to react the way they do when I tell them I’m meeting Elizabeth Gilbert. One friend stands up from her seat in the pub and gasps. Another shouts, ‘But I want to interview her!’ and – I’m almost sure of it – stamps her foot. A woman I meet at a dinner the night before the interview puts down her fork grips my arm and says: ‘I ended my marriage when I read that book.’
‘That book’ is, of course, Eat Pray Love. A memoir written by Elizabeth in 2006, it told the story of her divorce aged 34 and the subsequent year-long trip of spirituality, curiosity, pleasure and self-discovery spent in Italy, India, and Indonesia. It was read by 13 million people and turned into a film starring Julia Roberts as Elizabeth and Javier Bardem as a man named Felipe – a pseudonym for the Brazilian businessman Jose Nunes, whom Elizabeth met in Bali, fell in love with and went on to marry in 2007.
Eat Pray Love is a bible on many women’s bookshelves. It spent more than 200 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Oprah Winfrey told us to read it. Tyra Banks even reportedly went to Bali, directly inspired by the memoir, in the hope of recovering after a relationship had ended. I read it aged 23 and swiftly booked a trip to Bali on the turn of the final page. While I was there, I saw so many Elizabeth Gilbert impersonators, I took a collection of stealth photos every time I spotted one. I have a picture of a cafe in the hills of Ubud where several blonde women in their mid-thirties sat alone at tables, gazing out over a rice paddy field, waiting for their Felipe.
For many fans, though, ‘that book’ turned out to be a mere gateway drug into the world of Elizabeth Gilbert. She has since written four more, done TED Talks and a podcast series. She hosts ‘curiosity, creativity and courage’ retreats with her friend, author Cheryl Strayed, and now has an online community of 1,7 million that she communicates with on her Facebook page with updates, encouragement, wisdom, and messages that begin with ‘Dear Ones’. She has become a modern-day philosopher on the subjects of love, life, death, spirituality, friendship, and creativity. She represents a certain open-hearted, earnest sincerity that feels incompatible with modern, cynical sensibility and yet, evidently, many of us crave.
I meet her at her Soho hotel in London and she is energetic, bright-eyed, elfin-faced and charming despite having lost her voice. Her manner is one of Pollyanna-style enthusiasm, while also being decidedly forthright. I ask her to tell me if my questions are too nosy, as I know this to be an occupational hazard when you write a memoir and everyone talks to you like you’re their aunty. ‘I don’t have a lot of boundaries,’ Elizabeth assures me breezily. ‘But if I run into one, I’ll be certain you’re the first to know.’
This is good news, as I’m keen to ask her about the intervening years since ‘that book’ was published, in which the plot of her personal life seems to have been as substantial as those of her novels. In July 2016 she announced on her Facebook page that she was separating from Nunes, describing their parting as ‘very amicable’ and their reasons as ‘very personal’, after nine years of marriage. Two months later she wrote a Facebook post revealing that she was in a relationship with the writer Rayya Elias, then 55, her female best friend, who had just been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Rayya passed away in January last year, with Elizabeth at her side.
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