It's the story of her life

Marriage almost destroyed Elizabeth Gilbert. The American author had a nervous breakdown and was suicidal after divorcing her first husband.

Still in her early 30s and terrified of committing to another relationship, she decided at the time to pursue that great middle-class antidote to torment: overseas travel.

After eating herself silly in Italy, searching for enlightenment in India and finding romance in Bali, she wrote her hugely successful 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love.

Written with raw honesty and tender humour - and later adapted to film starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert - Eat Pray Love struck a chord with women disillusioned by the expectations of marriage and motherhood. It earned Gilbert a near cult following of 10 million (predominantly female) readers and made her wealthy and famous.

Gilbert, who had never wanted children of her own, ended up marrying the older ''Brazilian guy'' she fell in love with in Bali, but this came about through unexpected circumstances.

Jose Nunes (called Felipe in Eat Pray Love) was just as keen as Gilbert to avoid marriage after divorcing his Australian wife of 20 years. However, while trying to enter the US with Gilbert on a multiple visa, Jose, an Australian citizen, was detained by homeland security officers. They advised him to marry Gilbert if he wanted to join her in the US.

Gilbert wrote about this in Committed, her 2010 sequel to Eat Pray Love that begins with a historical exploration of marriage and ends with their wedding in the US in 2007 after Nunes got a valid visa in Sydney.

Today Gilbert, 43, is enjoying the fruits of her adventures, living with Nunes, 60, in Frenchtown, a small community on the Delaware River in New Jersey where they run a Balinese imports store.

Her second marriage, she says, ''is quite lovely''. The day after their wedding she woke up feeling as if they had just been before a firing squad but, after finding there were no bullet holes, thought, ''This is fine.''

She went into her first marriage without thinking, she says, and paid a great price. ''So I almost over-thought the second, to the point I may have obsessed over it,'' she says, laughing. ''But I find, oh, it's really quite a nice thing to do as a full-grown adult when you have established your identity … Your agenda is nothing more than that you would like nice companionship with somebody … and you know how not be a terrible pain in the ass to someone.''

Neither has given up travel and their first destination in 2013 is Australia, where Nunes has two grown-up children and one grandchild in Sydney and Canberra. It will be their fourth visit here in the past eight years and Gilbert will talk at literary events at the Australian National University on January 10 and at the Opera House on January 19.

But the Australian connection runs deeper. The idea for Gilbert's latest book, a novel called The Signature of all Things, to be published next year, came from a 1784 illustrated edition of Captain James Cook's voyages called Cook's Journeys, which belonged to Gilbert's great grandfather.

Cook has more significance for Australia than the US, she says, but she considers the book a stunning talismanic object.

''After a while, you get an instinct, like a water diviner,'' she says of her writing. ''When that book was put in my hands, it sent a shiver up my arm. I didn't know what that meant at the time but I knew I would be remiss not to investigate what it meant.''

Gilbert's novel is about a 19th-century family whose livelihood comes from the botanical commerce trade. It follows two generations of the Whittakers as they make their way in the world during the intersection of science, botany, trade and the beginnings of the debate about evolution. The main character's father was a botanical assistant on Cook's final voyage to Hawaii, where Cook was bludgeoned to death.

Gilbert grew up in a world of books. Raised on a farm in Connecticut by ''back-to-the-land'' parents, she and her older sister, Catherine, now an acclaimed young-adult novelist, amused themselves by reading, inventing stories and staging plays.

When she tired of children's stories at age 13, Gilbert asked her father if she could read one of his books. He handed her Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. ''It was an epic moment in my life,'' she says.

Gilbert spent years as a magazine journalist before her first book, Pilgrims, a short story collection, came out in 1997. Her second, Stern Men, published in 2000, was a novel. For the next 12 years she wrote non-fiction, continuing her examination of manhood in The Last American Man, her 2002 warts-and-all biography of an unconventional character called Eustace Conway.

Gilbert says it's no accident she has returned to writing fiction. After Committed, she felt she did not want to write memoir again.

''Some day I may return to it,'' she says, ''but for the moment I am very happy writing about lives that aren't mine.''

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert is published by Bloomsbury.

■ Elizabeth Gilbert will be in Australia this January talking about life after Eat Pray Love at two exclusive events. On Thursday, January 10, 6pm, at the National Library of Australia Theatre for an ANU/NLA Canberra Times literary event, in conversation with Gia Metherell. $10. Bookings: 6262 1271 or nla.gov.au/bookings. At the Sydney Opera House, in conversation with Caroline Baum, on Saturday, January 19, 6pm. Bookings: (02) 9250 7777

The story It's the story of her life first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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