He was the man who put the love in Eat, Pray, Love: the smart, sexy Brazilian importer Elizabeth Gilbert falls for at the end of her hugely popular 2006 memoir. But marry him? Not when it was the searing pain of divorce that led to that memoir, and its attendant soul-searching, in the first place. “We didn’t want to jinx the good thing we had going,” says Gilbert. “I thought the best talisman against divorce was never getting married.”
So much for that idea. Gilbert, 40, wed José Nunes (she gives him the pseudonym “Felipe” in her books) in February 2007. The couple live in Frenchtown, N.J., where they run an antique and craft store filled with treasures from their travels. And Gilbert’s new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, is all about the institution she once dreaded: its history as well as her own struggle to embrace it. Like Eat, Pray—which has sold more than 7 million copies, inspired a Julia Roberts movie due this summer and transformed Gilbert into a kind of inner-peace guru—it combines exotic travel (Southeast Asia this time around) with self-discovery. “I could have gone to therapy,” Gilbert says, laughing, “but the most efficient way I know to work through something is to write about it.”
The topic was practically forced on her. Arriving at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport from Paris in April 2006, Gilbert and José were told that his tourist visa didn’t allow him to come into the U.S. for indefinite consecutive visits, and he could not return unless they married. “We were sentenced to wed,” she says. So for the next 10 months, traveling with José through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia while they waited for the necessary paperwork, she looked for anecdotal lessons about marriage in Asia and researched the history of matrimony in Western culture. Among her discoveries: America’s 50 percent divorce rate doesn’t take age into consideration. Teens and early twentysomethings who get married are two to three times more likely to divorce than people who wait. “It’s reassuring how strong marriage tends to be when people get married later in life,” says Gilbert. “It is not a game for the young.”
Not that she needed confirmation on that point. The marriage memorialized in Eat, Pray, Love began when she was 25 and crashed six years later. “It was two extremely young, slightly narcissistic, completely irresponsible people prone to reckless decision making,” she says. “My mind is a little more quiet about it now, but boy did we blow it.” (Her ex, Michael Cooper, won’t comment but is writing his own memoir, coming out next summer. Says Gilbert: “It’s his prerogative. Being divorced means your ex-spouse can go and do whatever they want.”)
Emboldened by her research—as well as her love—she married José, now 57, in a small ceremony at home in New Jersey. Her relatives approve. “They’re tolerant, loving and generous,” says her sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, also a writer. “You know how the princess has to grow up before she finds the prince? She found him when she was ready to find him.”
When they aren’t traveling or working at their store, Two Buttons, José cooks and Gilbert gardens at their Victorian-style home. “Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t just salvation,” she says, “it was a down payment on a house.” José’s grown children (Zo, 29, and Erica, 24) sometimes visit, and Gilbert enjoys the role of stepmother and of aunt to her sister’s children—all the more since she’s decided not to have kids. “I believe strongly that there are three types of women—women meant to be mothers, women meant to be aunties and women who should not be around children at all,” she says. “I’m very happily ensconced in the auntie camp.”
She’s at work on a novel, and not worrying about whether Committed will be the phenomenon her first memoir was. “How do you replicate something that you have no sense how it occurred once?” she says.
Another thing she’s not worrying about? Making this union last just because she’s written a book about it. “With all due respect, I don’t owe my fans a perfect marriage. But if I were a bookie I would give us much better odds than I would have given myself years ago,” Gilbert says. “We were lucky enough to have a fairy-tale beginning. I’m much more interested in our real-life ending.”