Jan. 4, 2010— -- It's what's been called the "Cult of Liz." More than 6 million people -- mostly women -- have bought Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love."
Oprah Winfrey had the author appear on her show twice and has called the book "a modern woman's Bible."
"I haven't been this excited since Bono was here," she said on her talk show. "I am quivering now that you're here. I am so thrilled to have you here today."
But the legion of Gilbert worshippers, who see the author as an icon of female independence, might be surprised to learn that Gilbert has settled down in suburban New Jersey and is married to the man known in her books as "Felipe."
In her new book, "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage," Gilbert has a new message: women need to adjust their romantic expectations.
She writes that she refuses to burden her husband with the challenge of "completing her."
"It's the 'Jerry Maguire' fantasy. We've got to drop that," she said. "It makes for such good movies, and it's so lovely and it's so romantic, but...it's a lot to ask, that somebody deliver that, decade after decade."
Ironically, the author who is doing her part to debunk the Hollywood version of love is being played by Julia Roberts in a movie version of "Eat, Pray, Love," to be released later this year.
"What I'm saying is, turn on the lights, sober up," she said.
But how did Gilbert reach this point?
In her early twenties, Gilbert worked at a New York City bar called "Coyote Ugly." (Yes, the same bar in the 2000 movie).
"I was the ridiculous bar dancer...like, let's make this into a circus of like total stupidity," she said of her time as a bartender.
While working there she met her first husband, Michael Cooper. They married when they were both 25.
But five years later, they endured a supremely nasty divorce, during which Gilbert found herself sobbing uncontrollably on the streets of New York City.
Gilbert took off on a year-long spiritual journey designed to repair and rediscover herself. She ate her way through Italy, prayed and meditated in India, and fell in love with a Brazilian man, Felipe, in Bali.
"Eat, Pray, Love," which was published in 2006, chronicles that experience and remains on the bestseller list today.
Gilbert inspired thousands of women to retrace her travels and throw "Eat, Pray, Love" parties in their homes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even claims to be a fan, (despite a rather risque reference to her husband in the book). TIME magazine named Gilbert one of the world's most influential people.
'Committed' Picks Up With Felipe
Her new book picks up the story. At the end of "Eat, Pray, Love," Gilbert fell in love with the Brazilian-born Felipe in Indonesia and the two stayed together. In 2007, Felipe was detained while visiting her, and deported by immigration officials at the Dallas airport.
"The only way I could get him back was to marry him," she said. "So we were effectively licensed to wed through the INS."
It was a bit of a surreal scene in the basement of the Dallas airport. Gilbert recalled how the INS's officer Tom turned into a pre-marital counselor.
"[Tom] told us we had to get married and he saw the look of horror and despair on our faces, and then he turned from stern bureaucrat to protective neighbor. And he said, 'You know what's the problem? You love each other, you live together. You are not married to anybody else. Why not make the commitment?'" Gilbert recalled. "And my husband took his glasses off and, you know, rubbed his eyes and said, 'Oh Tom, Tom, Tom, we have both been through really bad divorces.'"
They decided to go for it. But while they waited for their papers to come through, they spent the months in a sort of exile, traveling through Asia.
And that's where Gilbert found the subject of her next book: marriage. And she jumped in, trying to learn everything she could about the enduring institution.
"It's been my experience in the past that the more I learn about something, the less frightening it is," Gilbert said, "You know, an academic mindset -- terrorism can be defeated through information and knowledge."
When we pointed out that she had just compared marriage to terrorism, Gilbert laughed and retorted, "You know, it's funny, Oscar Wilde said something like leprosy is better than marriage because there's a possibility for a cure for it someday."
Marriage: Inflated Expectations?
Gilbert's research brought her to a Vietnamese village, where she sat down with women -- all of whom had arranged marriages. Gilbert found that the questions she asked did not resonate with their ideals about what a relationship should be.
"I ended up ...asking them questions that were so glaringly, clangingly out of touch with their lives," she recalled. "Like, 'When did you fall in love with your husband' and 'When did you know he was special?' And these women are looking at me like, not only was I speaking a foreign language, which I was, but that I was speaking foreign concepts. You know….all of them had what anthropologists called pragmatic marriages, which are marriages based on what's beneficial for the larger community -- not necessarily what's beneficial to the individual. And I come from an entirely different philosophy."
Gilbert said that the conversation sparked a realization about her expectations and values.
"It was really interesting for me to discover that my expectations, what I carry into the matrimony of a relationship, are vastly higher than anybody's expectations have been for this union for most of human history," she said. "I don't want to become the preacher of everyone must lower their expectations -- it kind of runs counter to our society, and counter to what I am like as an individual -- but it's really good to know that your expectations are probably inflated."
Pouring through reams of research on marriage, Gilbert discovered that divorce rates skyrocketed when marriage evolved from a business contract into a love match.
Polls show that young women in the 1920s wanted a husband who was honest and reliable. But by the 1990s, it was a whole different ballgame.
"They start saying, 'I want somebody who inspires me'...That's a lot to ask on a Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., you know what I mean?" she said.
Gilbert Makes Peace With Marriage
Gilbert ultimately made peace with marriage by accepting its limits. Although -- even by the end of the book -- she didn't seem entirely convinced.
"Absolutely trying to talk myself into something here," she conceded, "Yay marriage!"
In 2007, after ten months in exile, Gilbert and Felipe were allowed back into the U.S., where they got married in an old, converted church they bought. Overcoming her initial aversion to marriage, Gilbert said she was "very moved" during the ceremony.
"I was crying the entire...I was very happy...I may not necessarily believe in marriage, but I really believe in this person who I love," Gilbert said. "And...there was a magnificence about the fact we had gone through all this to be together...So yeah, I was crying like a...toddler."
Gilbert and Felipe live in New Jersey, where she writes and her husband runs a store that sells imported goods from Asia. Her ex-husband is now writing his own memoir, called "Displaced." He took his own journey through the Middle East and developing world in a "search for purpose."
Fans of "Eat, Pray, Love" may be surprised to learn that this woman who spent months in daily prayer and yoga no longer meditates very much.
"I'm not a monk. And it was really clear to me, even in that moment, that if you want this, all of the time, this extremely poignant and pungent esoteric religious experience, this must be what you dedicate your life to, you know... And I don't belong in that. I don't belong in a monastery, you know, I belong, I belong in the world."
Gilbert's found a new sort of divinity, she said, in the daily, dirt-under-the-nails divinity of marriage.