The title of this memoir may be Committed but Elizabeth has not gotten over her dread of matrimony. She has been committed to the institution of marriage before and has no interest in going back. Thus far she has successfully evaded capture and is determined to do anything — anything at all to avoid “going through that apocalypse”. Details of that particular ‘apocalypse’ can be found in the pages of her previous book — Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia, recently turned into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts.
While she is content to be in a long distance relationship with a foreigner, her government, sadly, is not. And so Elizabeth Gilbert is “sentenced to marry”. By the US Department of Homeland Security no less and unless she complies, the US will close its doors to her man. Permanently. Suddenly, she is forced to come to terms with her scary marital history and make peace with the idea of marriage.
It gets worse. Soon, any American interested in marrying an outsider will have to undergo an FBI investigation. Thus begins an agonisingly long wait and an obligatory return to a nomadic life. Elizabeth uses this unexpected break to her advantage, raking through her private history and public records to determine “what this befuddling, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is”.
As their travels take Elizabeth and her fiancé off the beaten path, she will make a solitary journey armed with the works of eminent matrimonial scholars to better understand her “inherited assumptions, the shape of her family’s narrative and her culturally specific catalogue of anxieties”. She argues that she must be vigorously persuaded because matrimony has not always been kind to women. This involves extensive time travelling to explore the primitive notions about marriage and divorce. Turns out that marriage was not always considered sacred even within Christian tradition, (they resisted for at least 10 centuries) and this discovery alone allows her to stop stringing together the terms sin and failure with divorce and finally let herself off the hook.
Elizabeth, who has been watching the women in her family “adapt, adjust, glide and accept”, is painfully aware that her advantageous childhood has been built on the ashes of her mother’s sacrifices. She comes across some alarming statistics claiming that a long, happy, healthy, prosperous existence awaits married men who are the sole beneficiaries of this union.
She will also embark on parallel journeys to decipher the modern interpretation of marriage while closely examining its evolutionary nature, which she believes actually ensures its survival. This is nice because it really needed to change. In Europe, a nasty practice known as ‘coverture’ forced women to renounce their legal rights and property, “doubling a man’s power as his wife’s evaporated”. She further observes that combined with the strict anti-divorce policies of the church, marriage became an institution that entombed and erased its female victims — especially among the gentry. Trace amounts of this troubling ruling could be detected as late as 1975 and prevented married women (like Elizabeth’s mother) from opening checking accounts or taking out loans without their husband’s written permission.
While she wanders through the pages of history, learning new facts (apparently, even a seagull that supposedly mates for life has a 25 percent divorce rate) and putting the marriages of her friends and family on the stand, Elizabeth must also introduce marital customs of distant lands. This is a part travelogue, after all. In the hills of northern Vietnam, for instance, reside the Hmong, convinced that it does not matter whom one marries “and with rare exceptions, one man is pretty much the same as another”. Their depressing worldview has held them in good stead thus far.
The writer, on the other hand, duels with her deep seated insecurities and reveals the sort of marriage she is likely to have — “wifeless, motherless and husbandless” — which simply means that neither would be obligated to fulfil the traditional role of housekeeper or breadwinner. It also means that she will proudly defend the decision to join an “Auntie Brigade” instead of enlisting in the “Mommy Corps”. Members of the exclusive brigade will be pleased to learn that they are in great company — Tolstoy, Capote, Lennon and the Bronte sisters, all raised by doting aunts.
Elizabeth freely admits that the point of the whole exercise is just to talk herself into tying the knot. And this leads to an elaborately crafted, highly illuminating, (delightful) discourse between a sceptic and western marriage.
First Published in Daily Times under the title of 'For better or worse' 28 Aug 2010
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Available at Liberty Books