In September, Lovely Spouse and I visited Portland, Oregon. During the flight there, I found myself reading over my traveling companion’s shoulder. She was whipping through Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’d been advised by a friend to read the book because we were visiting Strayed’s hometown and also because some pivotal scenes in the book happened in the Portland area.
At first, Strayed’s writing style put me off a little (too many adverbs, sorry); however, the more I read, the more I found myself drawn into the narrative, even though I started 25% of the way in and was only able to read it in fragments and chunks. The style disappeared, and all that remained was my fascination with the tale, the trail, and her travail — the latter of which includes everything in her life that led to her hiking the PCT.
My wife finished the book as we flew back to Nashville. Along the way, I continued to read snippets, pages, a chapter here and there. Once we were home, I read Wild properly, from beginning to end, and enjoyed it immensely. I highly recommend this book.
Wild may be the first memoir I’ve ever read. I never enjoyed the biographies I was compelled to read in school, so since then I’ve tended to avoid such works — although I did enjoy Frank Zappa’s autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, years ago.
After completing a book as impressive as Wild, I often like to read relevant reviews and critiques. In articles about Wild, another book kept coming up in comparison: Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Key among these reviews was one from Slate that asked the question, “When did you know you weren’t going to like Eat, Pray, Love?” Another thought-provoking critique from a woman’s perspective came under the title Eat, Pray, Spend: Priv-Lit and the New, Enlightened American Dream.
Since I hadn’t read Gilbert’s book, I didn’t understand the points people were trying to make. I became curious what it was about Eat, Pray, Love that aroused such strong opinions, both positive and negative. Also, since a friend will soon be spending time in Bali, Indonesia, I thought it would be interesting to read Gilbert’s observations about the place. Lovely Spouse had a copy of the book, having read it in her book club, and was gracious enough to loan it to me.
So that’s how I ended up reading these two very different memoirs back-to-back.
Even though Wild was written by a woman, its story and its concerns are universal: emotional and physical pain, loss of loved ones, the satisfactions and frustrations of family, the difficulties of finding one’s place in the world, et cetera. Eat, Pray, Love is by contrast unapologetically a women’s book, and has taken a lot of flak for it. I can only attribute this to outright misogyny. A book by a woman, addressing concerns relevant to women, is taken less seriously by the culture at large; that’s just how things are. If a man had written a memoir outlining the exact same itinerary with similar experiences, it wouldn’t have taken hits for being “dude lit”.
I loved Wild and eagerly anticipated time spent with it. Strayed made sense to me, even when — perhaps especially when — she was making terrible life decisions, like getting temporarily addicted to heroin as an escape from the emotional fallout of her mother’s death and Strayed’s divorce. Eat, Pray, Love was a long slog interrupted occasionally by brilliant insights or experiences that gave me chills. Her handwritten discussions with her inner, guiding voice were strange and beautiful in places, for example.
The biggest difference between the two books has to do with the relative difficulty of the challenges these women faced. Strayed went through a series of painfully difficult experiences, one after another after another, practically from birth. Strayed’s life up to the point of her hike on the PCT is one of hopes quashed, love lost, and a kind of failure to thrive. She is almost utterly without hope and yet seeks to regain herself by attempting this very difficult trek.
By contrast, while Gilbert shares few details of her life outside the scope of her divorce and travels, what she does show us is a portrait of a powerfully driven woman who almost without exception gets what she wants. She may not get it when she wants it, but she does eventually get it. The crux of the whole book, the discovery that sets the whole story in motion, is that she has gotten all the things she wanted but then discovers that she is miserable in the midst of everything she has worked to attain and acquire. As Gilbert sails through her travels, it happens repeatedly that while she may have a temporary setback now and again, things inevitably turn around for her and she gets what she seeks. Again. There’s seldom a sense of risk, of tension, or the feeling that everything may go off the rails.
Gilbert comes to buy into a garbled belief system that veers uncomfortably close to magical thinking, the philosophical engine that drives books like The Secret and its close Christian cousin, prosperity theology. Strayed has no such trust that everything will work out for her if she just prays or meditates hard enough or thinks good thoughts.
I also worry that while Strayed’s account of her struggles is credible, much of Gilbert’s story feels fabricated or, at best, exaggerated — either to make her look good, to satisfy the desires of her targeted audience, or to make the story work better. The situations in Eat, Pray, Love work out so well for Gilbert over and over again that it strains credibility. Even if she starts out at a loss or disadvantage, she invariably ends up as the best, the hardest working, the prettiest, or the most admired character in that section of the story. Gilbert never has a hopeless moment where her very life is at risk like the one in Wild when Strayed loses both of her hiking boots but has to continue anyway. Gilbert takes for granted having access to money, people who support her, and admiration. For Strayed, it’s a victory just to have survived.
I’m glad I read both books, but it’s Wild that I enthusiastically recommend and which I plan to reread someday. Eat, Pray, Love I’m glad I read because of the cultural hullabaloo surrounding both it and the film based on it, the same way I’m glad I read Twilight — but I won’t recommend or revisit it.
Have you read either or both of these books? What did you think? Talk about it in the comments!
Gratuitous addition: Anytime I think about Wild for too long, this song from Poe’s album Haunted gets stuck in my head.