An eager and estrogen-dominated audience filled Overture Hall last night for an intimate evening with Elizabeth Gilbert, celebrity author and patron saint of divorcees. Gilbert is an Everywoman -- if every woman you've met used a book advance to trot across the globe for a year, write about her broken heart, and be portrayed by Julia Roberts in a major motion picture. Gilbert's memoir of her travels, Eat, Pray, Love, exploded onto the New York Times bestseller list in 2006 and subsequently catapulted Gilbert into literary rock star fame.
Following up a hit is a notoriously difficult task (Gilbert had written three books prior to Eat, Pray, Love, but they attracted little attention), but what Gilbert herself calls the "freakish success" of her memoir made the process even more daunting. On the Overture stage, which was set like a posh suburban living room, Gilbert talked candidly about her work, her relationships, and the struggle she had in writing her most recent work, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, which functions as both a sequel and a meditation on matrimony itself.
While many writers embark on book tours reluctantly and do little besides reading a chapter aloud, Gilbert is a consummate performer. She quipped to the handful of men in the audience, "Did you know where you were going before you came?" and urged everyone to buy her book if for no other reason than "to keep Sarah Palin off the top of the bestseller list."
Gilbert mentioned her new book often but did not read from it. She spoke without notes about her renewed faith in the institution of marriage: "Marriage is like a down-and-out neighborhood. It falls out of fashion, and then the gays come in!" She also relayed humorous anecdotes about her legions of loyal, if occasionally bizarre, fans, one of whom asked Gilbert to decide if she should leave her marriage or not. "There is nothing we suffer from more than uncertainty," Gilbert asserted, and she saw that often in the desperation of her more zealous fans as well as in her own despair over whether she would ever be able to write another book after the phenomenon of Eat, Pray, Love.
Joy Cardin, the Wisconsin Public Radio host, hosted the question-and-answer session following Gilbert's speech, and while some questions were more akin to compliments, Gilbert riffed easily on any subject. Her biggest advice for aspiring writers? "Don't go into debt."
At the end of the evening, as women streamed out of the auditorium, orderly as ants, to line up for a brief audience and book signing with Gilbert, one remarked to her companion: "She talks just like she writes." This is true, though what can be gratingly colloquial and self-indulgent in print comes across as familiar and charming in person. It was nearly impossible not to fall under Gilbert's honest, wisecracking spell -- even if her cozy chat cost upwards of fifty bucks.