Author Elizabeth Gilbert has found a sanctuary in Hunterdon County.
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It’s open season on Elizabeth Gilbert.
With a new book coming out this month, the author of the massively popular 2006 memoir-travelogue Eat, Pray, Love knows the national media is about to invade her carefully constructed comfort zone.
“Every two or three years, you have to come out of your lovely sanctuary of a life and let people take pictures of you and ask you questions and express opinions about you,” says Gilbert. “You just have to know that that’s a very small price to pay for the rest of the time, which is fortunate beyond words.”
Gilbert, 40, lives in the little Delaware River borough of Frenchtown, where she runs Two Buttons, a jewelry-and-housewares emporium, with her husband, Jose Nunes, whom readers of Eat, Pray, Love will recognize as Felipe, the courtly Brazilian she met in Bali.
Eat, Pray, Love, which spent 57 weeks atop the New York Times best-seller list, chronicled part of what Gilbert calls a “five-year freakout” in her 30s. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, roams the continents in search of wisdom about relationships. This time Gilbert delves deeply into her onetime disaffection for the institution of marriage, an attitude she shared with Nunes. When the two met at the end of Eat, Pray, Love (subtitled One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia), both had been through catastrophic divorces. After they left Indonesia for the United States, they swore eternal fidelity to each other but planned never to wed.
Then in stepped U.S. immigration officials. If Nunes wanted to stay in the United States, they declared, the easiest (and maybe only) way was for the couple to get married. Thus began Gilbert’s quest to wrap her head around the vexing human habit of marriage. “It’s something we all think we know about but mostly don’t,” she says.
Gilbert—whose blond, ringleted head and sweet face are leavened by a big, throaty laugh, and who likes to be called Liz—is well prepared for the attention about to be lavished upon her. She achieved literary fame in 1998 with her debut short-story collection, Pilgrims, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her 2002 examination of American masculinity, The Last American Man, was nominated for a National Book Award. Then came Eat, Pray, Love, which has inspired a major motion picture tentatively scheduled for release this summer with Julia Roberts as Gilbert.
Yes, it all adds up to pressure, but there is the likelihood that the forthcoming media invasion will be something of a lovefest. For one thing, Committed, which outlines the circuitous and paranoia-streaked road she traveled to marrying Nunes in 2007, hews reassuringly close in tone to Eat, Pray, Love, and is as absorbingly breezy.
For another, any reporters who journey to Frenchtown with their knives sharpened are bound to be disarmed by the setting, and especially by Gilbert’s mien.
Gilbert is a born proselytizer. She has been proselytizing about Frenchtown since she moved there three years ago after a year abroad—she previously lived in Manhattan and Philadelphia. She chose the area to be closer to her sister, Catherine, who lives outside of Philly. (Gilbert likes to tell the story of how she found her first home in the area, a converted Milford church she has since turned into a retreat for writer friends.
From across the world, in Bali during the spiritual journey that would become Eat, Pray, Love, she stuck her finger on a map. “I’m not so good at geography. On a world map, Hunterdon County looks a lot closer to Philadelphia than it is,” she says.) The result of Gilbert’s Frenchtown boosterism has been an influx of carefully chosen neighbors. Which is not to say that Gilbert was dissatisfied with the existing Frenchtown populace.
“Whatever I believe in, I sort of impale everybody with,” she says while sucking a Dum Dum lollipop. “I love this town. I believe in this town. I think it’s a remarkable place. And I definitely have been trying to lure people here who I feel like would get it, or get something out of it.”
The new arrivals include an artist friend from Arkansas: “He came here and he said, ‘What’s this sleepy little Southern town doing here in the middle of the Northeast?,’” says Gilbert.
To get Frenchtown, Gilbert says, “you have to be the sort of person who wants to step off the highway a little bit. That’s how Frenchtown feels. I’m concerned about the velocity at which we run our lives, and there’s some sort of a Brigadoon-like quality to this place that really holds that at bay. I have friends who would respond to that.”
Gilbert’s colonization efforts are sometimes thinly veiled acts of startling generosity. For example, she and Nunes are building a studio next to Two Buttons for a dancer friend from Indianapolis.
“We figure if we build her a studio, she’ll have to come,” Gilbert jokes. She has also already made room within Two Buttons—which sells marble Buddhas, beaded jewels, hand-carved furnishings, and colorful saris and scarves plucked by the couple from around the world—for a studio for a Frenchtown painter friend, Sandra Flood. And most recently, she carved out a roughly 1,200-square-foot space under the cavernous Two Buttons roof for another friend, Mike Quinn, co-owner of the Lovin’ Oven café in Milford.
Quinn, who opened Lovin’ Oven with his wife, Julie Klein, in Milford four years ago, was having a hard time finding a new space for his business. “I was ready to cut my losses, and Liz said, ‘Why don’t we join forces?’” The revamped Lovin’ Oven may open as soon as February.
Gilbert has a way of waving off any credit for her good works. “We’re just making a space for them because we selfishly don’t want them to leave,” she says of Lovin’ Oven, whose food she calls “awesome-comfort-healthy-abundant-interesting.”
The dance studio, which will be used for social dancing—tango, waltz, cha-cha, and the like—is also an act of selfishness, she says.
“We have a lot of yoga and pilates in this town, which I love, but I feel like now I’m getting older and we’ve got to start moving our asses,” she says. “Since I turned 40 I’m overcome with this certainty that it’s time to start dancing. We need movement, we need music. We need the vibrancy of that.”
The studio will be open to the public, which means that Eat, Pray, Love tourists—acolytes who come to Frenchtown in hopes of encountering Gilbert (there are many, she says)—may one day catch their heroine doing the fox-trot.
But if that’s potentially surprising, Gilbert’s commitment to her adopted home may be more of a shock. Committed, like Eat, Pray, Love before it, leaves the impression that Gilbert is someone who routinely flies off to the remotest pockets of the world in search of answers. But the need to travel no longer tugs at her the way it once did.
“Honestly, I long for it less and less, partially because of the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon and being on the road so much” doing tours and talks, she says. Also, “it might just be my age, I’m not sure, but I’ve never felt at home before, and for the first time in my life I feel like I belong to a place where we’re all working to build something together.”
That thing, she says, is community: “It’s a project that’s more exciting to me than anything else right now—the project of being part of a place.”
Gilbert is still heavily plugged into her writer’s existence; she will spend the next few months promoting Committed, for which publisher Viking plans a first print run of a staggering 1 million copies in hardcover. And she’s already researching a new work of fiction.
But with open season upon her, she is pleased to be ensconced in her Frenchtown oasis. “I feel that the people here are my people, and we’re here to support each other,” she says.
“This town is exactly the right size for my level of—what would you call it?— notoriety, I guess,” she says, wrapping herself in a scarf and heading off for a photo shoot. “I’ve found where I’m supposed to be.”
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.