Elizabeth Gilbert wants you to understand one thing: She's not a wedding basher.
Actually, she wants you to understand a lot of things, particularly about marriage and its effect on people and society. In her entertaining new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage (Viking, $26.95), Gilbert dissects the institution, its history and possible future, in anticipation of her having to engage in it again. Unwillingly.
"I totally understand the desire to be a princess for a day,'' says Gilbert, who appears Saturday at Temple Israel for Books & Books. "All of this stuff is really important in women's lives. But there's a really big difference between a wedding and a marriage.''
Committed picks up where her mega-bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love - about her travels to Italy, India and Indonesia after bouts with divorce and depression - leaves off. The marriage-averse Gilbert and her newfound love, the Brazilian, Australia-born Felipe, were happily planning "a life together that's somehow divided between America, Australia, Brazil and Bali.''
This inspired idea was not meant to be. When the couple was returning to the States in "the late years of George W. Bush's presidential administration,'' Homeland Security at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport stopped Felipe, interrogated him for six hours - and decided to deport him to Australia.
Stunned, Gilbert asked: "What's the fastest way for us to secure him a better, more permanent visa?''
"Honestly,'' said the Homeland security officer, who seemed puzzled as to why this hadn't occurred to her, "the two of you need to get married.''
And so began Committed, on which Gilbert worked as she and Felipe - also divorced and not particularly eager to get married again - traveled around Asia waiting for the legal OK to wed in the United States.
Don't be fooled, though: Committed is not an advice book.
"I don't come away with any conclusions,'' Gilbert says, laughing. "It's hard enough for me to draw conclusions about my own life. It's something I want to add to a conversation people are having anyway with sisters, spouses, friends and the courts, a longstanding social conversation. The thing that differentiates me is that I have the ability to take three years and think for three years and read what's been written about it and condense it into a meditation on the subject. I just want to be able to hand it to people and say, "Here, this is a lot of information; make your own conclusions.' ''
Gilbert's humorous, self-deprecating voice - so effective in Eat, Pray, Love - presides in Committed, too. On the nature of infatuation: "Psychologists call that state of deluded madness înarcissistic love.' I call it 'my twenties.'‚''
"I think a great part of her appeal is the unpretentious honesty and directness of her voice,'' says Miami novelist Diana Abu-Jaber, also author of the memoir The Language of Baklava. "She's willing to take the risks - personal and artistic - that many of us only dream of. And that sort of adventurous approach to living and working is tremendously inspiring to read about.''
Gilbert researched her subject thoroughly, learning about the "ghost marriages'' of China (women marry dead men to earn prestige) and how wedding gifts in Laos can mean financial security for the community.
"I went in with the idea that marriage was this rigid, box-shaped social institution handed down from generation to generation, and people were forced into the box. What I came away with is the idea that marriage is this very liquid, negotiable social experiment. Each generation tinkers with it and changes it. It's an empowering thing to realize that when you enter into it you become one of the people who shapes it.''
Such malleability leads Gilbert to believe that same-sex marriage will, at some point, be legal in the United States. As she notes in Committed: In 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that interracial marriage was legal, a poll îîshowed that 70 percent of Americans vehemently opposed this ruling, "but the courts were morally ahead of the general population on this matter.''
"Even in the last few years, this chaotic shape that the debate has taken, with some states passing it and some revoking it, and courts overruling courts and voters overruling judges, all of that seems madness, but it's the beginning of an inevitability,'' Gilbert says. "The fact we're having this conversation at all shows that ideas have changed a great deal. Friends of mine get frustrated about it, and I try to remind them of the historic perspective.''
Gilbert - now at work on a novel because "I've about had it with my own voice'' - figures if her book has a message, it's "Be very careful who you marry!''
"This is not a game for the young or the romantically deluded,'' she says. "It's not a sport for children. What I found reassuring in all this is that the science points clearly to the fact that you can't wait too long to get married. The older you are on the day of your marriage, the more likely you are to stay married.''
Not that she would ever claim to be an expert on what makes love last.
"When you've been divorced, you can't be cocky like that about a relationship,'' she says. "You just know strange winds can blow. There's plenty of room in the book for a possible unknown future. But it is a hope-drenched document.''
Gilbert appears at 7:30 Saturday Jan. 9 at Temple Israel in Miami for Books & Books; buy Committed at any Books & Books location and get two tickets.