Liz Gilbert Is Alive and Well and Living in Frenchtown

The author of Eat Pray Love — soon to be a movie starring Julia Roberts — on marriage, her latest book, and life in a little town on the Delaware

Usually, if you drive an hour and a half to see how someone is doing, it’s because they are not doing so well. I suspect, however, that Liz Gilbert is doing just fine. Though what I discover is not what you might expect of a woman who is about to be played by Julia Roberts in a movie charting her transformation from near suicidal depression to, well…if you picture Julia Roberts in full flower of enthusiasm, of taking life on and whacking it for all it’s worth and having a hell of a time, that’s a pretty good approximation of what Liz is like. Though what she’s up to at the moment, and where, is pretty down-home Julia.

At the Lovin’ Oven, the café that sits in the front of the warehouse that houses Two Buttons, the precious-objects export business Liz and her husband José run in Frenchtown, New Jersey (up the river from New Hope), a woman I’ll call Mary comes up to our table. Mary is rather chunky, and wears extremely high-waisted, ballooning pants and says, with great aplomb, that she’s going to get a job at the Lovin’ Oven. She’s sure they’re going to hire her. Meanwhile, could Liz please buy her a cup of coffee? [SIGNUP]

Then Myrna, a Montessori teacher of a certain age with perfect teeth and fine wrinkles, stops by to tell Liz she missed her at yoga the last couple of mornings; they talk gardening. “I plan not to budge from this chair for the next three or four years,” Liz laughs. There’s the local cop, a lover of Lovin’ Oven cupcakes. Liz teases that he lost his hiding spot, out there at the corner, because she just took the hedge down, though the cop avers that no, his spot was across River Road. Mary comes back, and Liz agrees on how nice it will be when Mary works at the Lovin’ Oven, and then Mary worries that Liz’s dog Rocky, a rescued mutt with marbled fur, misses Liz back there in Two Buttons.

It’s Frenchtown, a woman will tell me later in the parking lot. Where the earthy, educated and barely hanging on converge. This is where Liz Gilbert landed, after a long ride.

The story—hers—is famous. She was a successful magazine and fiction writer — one who’d spent a few years in Philly back in the ’90s — lost in a wreck of a marriage. He wanted kids, she thought she was supposed to. Heartbreak, intense therapy, and the idea of a book ensued: She’d travel the world — Italy, India, and Bali, it turned out — and figure herself the hell out. Eat Pray Love made her rich and famous and sought as a sort of big-sister speaker for ailing post-feminist women everywhere, a pretty good gig.

Except what, exactly, do you do next?

The answer, post EPL, was to write another book, because that’s what Liz does. Maybe it would be a novel. She tried that, didn’t work. Finally she settled on a book about marriage, a hybrid of her own happy ending and a historical nod to just what it is we do to ourselves when we tie the knot.

“This book was so fucking loaded — whatever pent-up feelings people had about me and EPL, they would vent,” Liz says. “I sort of let everyone know who loves me, this is scary. A week before publication, I felt like I was going to throw up every single day.”

Committed came out at the beginning of the year. On the one hand, the editor of the British edition told Liz that her treatise “seems to be striking fear in the hearts of 23-year-olds about marriage, and giving hope to 40-year-olds.” Presto!

On the other hand, Committed started on the Times best-seller list, but after a few weeks, slid off. Reviews have been mixed. Liz has been roundly criticized in a few quarters, including by Janet Maslin in the Times, for writing another memoir in that same voice with the same issues …

But just as Maslin and others were having their say, Liz was free.

“Literally, the day the book hit the stands, something was removed — it was not my problem anymore. It was sealed. I would never have to write the book after Eat Pray Love again.”

And here, maybe, is the most remarkable thing: Friends warned Liz not to read Maslin’s review, and she hasn’t. Nor does she go online to check what readers are saying: “It’s not tempting at all — I know the harm it can do. And I have no temptation to harm myself.”

Further, she is quite ready to pass the baton of EPL stardom to Julia Roberts, given that the story will forever more be identified with her when the movie comes out in August: “She’s so huge, she’ll absorb it. I’m not. It will be a big spotlight shift.”

Meanwhile, Liz is taking the summer off. She thinks. A new novel is brewing. But if she can get herself to simply go tubing on the Delaware and worry her basil into life, she’ll stick with that.

ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.