Travel literature review: Eat, Pray, Eat

Eat, Pray, Eat by Michael Booth

Rating: 2.5 out 5

Reviewed by Janine Eberle

It’s tempting to approach a book with a title so clearly inspired by Eat, Pray, Love with some preconceptions, and not a little caution. In this case, both are well placed. Booth sets out to write a foodie travelogue of India. It would not be the first, but a nation containing a billion people and 30 million Hindu gods can surely handle more than its share of visiting Westerners poring over its admittedly rich and complex cuisine.

Our hero is thwarted in this noble quest by that reliable literary party pooper, the wife. What could have been a perfectly enjoyable book about the experiences of the author and his family travelling and eating their way through India is derailed by Booth’s wife’s insistence that he gets off the booze and ‘finds himself’, by means of a month-long yoga retreat in Mysore. So instead, we get a fairly standard tale of male dissolution being set to rights by the intervention of a long-suffering but devoted spouse.

The author describes himself and the state of his life in early chapters with that comic self-deprecation that seems so common in British male writers of a certain age, and conjures Bill Bryson. He is neurotic, bitter about his comparative (to Bill Bryson) level of career success, negative and anxious. He drinks too much, but in a ‘middle class risk-taking’ way rather than a totally alcoholic way.

To a selfish reader, these kinds of personality traits and behaviours are amusing. Especially when plunged into the unfamiliarity of a foreign land, and even more so when that foreign land is as challenging and constantly surprising as India. It’s not as much fun to read about the earnest self-satisfaction of people who are attending yoga retreats in an attempt to achieve enlightenment. Here, the mash-up of light-hearted travel picaresque clashes somewhat with a story that inescapably – and despite the author’s best efforts – becomes self-helpy.

India appears in the book as a backdrop against which the author’s journey takes place. It’s integral to the action in the multitude of yogic and meditative opportunities for transcendence it offers, but for the most part we hear about Booth’s slow and reluctant transformation rather than the country he’s travelling in.

It’s a shame because he is a writer with a great humorous turn of phrase and a gift for the unexpected simile; for example describing the pink of Jaipur as ‘more a faded shade of salmon, like a German game show host’s blazer’. There are moments of engagement with the country’s culture and people, and he writes with charm and affection of the locals they meet and befriend, and with honesty of the inevitable culture clashes. But the focus of the story is squarely on the author’s personality, his realisation of his need to change and his struggle to do so. Ultimately, India is there to put things in perspective for privileged Westerners – it doesn’t have a meaning of its own.

If you come to this book wanting to read about India or Indian food you might be disappointed. But if you are interested in how yoga might be transformative and you want a blow-by-blow account of what happens to a cynical, unfit, middle-aged man plunged into a world of contorting poses and ‘om’ing, you could find some interest here.

Janine Eberle works in guidebook product development at Lonely Planet, and travels primarily to eat.

Read more travel literature reviews here.