Whilst I wait for Gilbert’s new The Signature of all Things to land on my door-mat (see Cornflower’s brilliant review), I thought I’d catch up with her previous books. I’ve already read Eat Pray Love and Committed. In both, I loved her style and turn of phrase. I read Committed just before I got married in late 2009 and found it thought-provoking, challenging and eye-opening. In a way, it helped me order my own rather confused thoughts and opinions about marriage and for that reason, it holds a special place on my bookshelves.
I was slightly more ambivalent about Eat Pray Love . People from Yorkshire usually take pride in being blessed with a highly developed strain of what we call ‘common-sense’. My mother would probably disagree that I have this trait myself, but I beg to differ (sorry Mum!), because it certainly kicked in as I read Eat, Pray, Love. Running away to East Asia to ‘find yourself’ is something that I think is a little self-indulgent and my Yorkshire common sense was more than a little uncomfortable with it. However, I put that aside and found a well-written, thoughtful and fascinating book.
In the last week or so, I’ve hoovered up The Last American Man. This was written before either Eat, Pray, Love and Committed and so I was unsure what to expect, but was hopeful that I would find Gilbert’s trademark clear-eyed warmth…which I did, in buckets. The Last American Man is the story of Eustace Conway and his chosen life. He opted out of twentieth and twenty-first American society to go back to ‘the frontier’. From early childhood, he studied Native American crafts and lore and left home to live in the forest when still a teenager. Gilbert then chronicles his life, views and activities across thirty or forty years.
The thought uppermost in my mind as I read The Last American Man was, ‘would I be brave enough to open up my life to a writer as Eustace Conway did to Elizabeth Gilbert?’ The answer, I suspect, is no. This is because I do not live an extreme life that merits writing about, but also because the honest scrutiny would be unbearable to me. Eustace’s character is stripped bare, a complete dissection, with each layer of skin and muscle carefully peeled back and pinned. All his bad decisions, irrationality and, at times, un-likeability, are honestly recorded alongside his admirable achievement and strengths. Eustace Conway has nowhere to hide – it feels like Gilbert caught his entire being and pressed into the pages of this book, with the prism of her prose guiding the eye. This book, about a flawed but fascinating man, is in its own way a masterpiece, but not without fault, just like its subject. Gilbert is also quick to draw comparisons between Conway’s life and the development of America, the cult of the individual and the continuing importance of ‘the frontier’ to the American psyche. I found that fascinating as I looked at a similar topic for my Masters dissertation, but those points are perhaps not for everyone!
I won’t say much more, as this book should be one you approach without knowing too much about what will happen I think. What I will say though is that if you are interested in Gilbert’s development as a writer and interested in searingly good character studies, you can’t afford to miss this early book.