Sunday, September 23, 2012

Committed

29. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

A three-in-a-row nonfiction streak! I think this is a new record for me.

I'll confess, I never read Eat, Pray, Love. Maybe I'll get around to it one of these days. But this book has a much more interesting premise for me: What would you do if you had to get married?

Let's back up. I'm not talking arranged marriage or marriage for money. Not even accidental pregnancy. Elizabeth Gilbert's situation is a little more unique. See, she's in love with a guy from Brazil with an Australian passport whom she met in Bali. He and she swore eternal love, they've been living together all over the world, and they've also sworn never to get married. Why? Both are survivors of bad divorces and don't trust the institution.

Okay, so one day they arrive in the United States together and her Felipe, her love, is taken away. He's been coming to the US too often, it appears that he's in fact (gasp!) de facto living there, on consecutive three-month visas. Therefore, he is banned from entering the country. Ever again.

Unless...

He can get a better visa. What's a better visa? A marriage visa.

But, unlike a recent episode of Switched, they can't just get hitched there at the airport. No, they have to wait to submit their paperwork; proof of their association, proof of each one's good standing in their respective countries, proof of their intent to marry. In the meantime, they travel to Southeast Asia and Gilbert does some digging into the origins of the Western institution of marriage and how it came to be the way it's traditionally pictured today.

I was primarily attracted to the book because of this research. I have my own host of doubts about the institution of marriage, its state-controlled benefits and gender-specific downsides. Gilbert does a good job of synthesizing her sources and making her thoughts into entertaining reading. My one quibble is that while she does note the major works that she reads and reflects on, I would have appreciated footnotes for where specific ideas came from and particularly a bibliography at the end. Even a selected one, for heaven's sake!

What Gilbert uncovers is that marriage and family are NOT the bedrock of Western religious civilization-not unless you're Jewish that is. Early Christians advocated celibacy and considered marriage little better than fornication. In medieval times, marriage was mostly about the transfer of property, and political claims, in the case of the higher class.

In Cambodia, Gilbert speaks to a Hmong grandmother, who considers "husband" as a particular role to be filled by working in the fields and siring children. It's the modern idea of love and choosing our own spouses that started this idea that your spouse must be your confidante and best friend in every way.

She cites all the relevant statistics that we've heard before-when people choose their own spouses, the divorce rate goes up (the US divorce rate is approximately 50%), men benefit more financially, socially, and emotionally from marriage than women do, and divorce rates are lower for those who marry when they're over the age of 25. Women are more likely to be happy in their marriages and divorce rates are lower when they are more educated, marry older, and leave children out of the picture. Gilbert has all of the latter three going for her-though unfortunately not the statistical likelihood that you will be more compatible with someone of the same cultural background and socioeconomic class.

One of the most interesting studies she reads is one from a member of the British conservative party, who posits that marriage and family are essentially subversive. I think this is it, looks like it's out of print. While it's a book she chose based on the title and would not have picked up if she knew the author's identity beforehand, Gilbert was comforted by the notion that pair bonding was a phenomenon that governments could not stop (remember the story of St. Valentine), so they decided to restrict it instead, and then pretend it was their own idea. It's a much more hip narrative anyway.

I'm glad I read Committed, although Gilbert is more interested in what will make a marriage work, and I'm more interested in how the state controls or regulates marriage. It's definitely a worthwhile read for anyone contemplating marriage or with an academic interest in marriage and gender relations. I'm sure tons of Eat, Pray, Love fans read it, I have no idea if they were disappointed or not. I will say though it is not an academic work in itself, it's far too informal and politically incorrect for that (despite painful attempts to be politically correct-ahem).

2 comments:

litlove said...

Great review! I read this a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought Gilbert did an excellent job of making her research fascinating and informative, never dry, and of incorporating it neatly with real life experience. I haven't read Eat, Pray, Love either, but one day I'll get around to it. I certainly have time for Gilbert as a writer now.

Space Station Mir said...

Thanks! I absolutely agree, on both counts.