Karen Valby
July 30, 2010 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When women rally around something in pop culture, it isn’t long before the objects of their affection are loudly trivialized or dismissed. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love, the story of Elizabeth Gilbert’s yearlong quest for inner peace that has sold nearly 8 million copies in America alone, the sneering and yawning reached a fever pitch when the paperback hit No. 1 in the spring of 2007 and Oprah hollered her approval. ”If women like it,” Gilbert says today, with calmness and good humor, ”it must be stupid.”

There are countless stories about men on quests. We expect them, so we don’t deny these men their yearnings. ”There are so many rites-of-passage movies for men,” says Eat Pray Love director Ryan Murphy. ”Not a lot for women.” Not unless you count a kiss, or a ring, or a baby as the only possible rites. Early on in her story, Gilbert, now 41, has her confidence shattered and comes undone. So she goes around the world looking to put herself back together.

The gall of Gilbert’s pursuits, or perhaps the fact that women everywhere were suddenly clutching that clean white cover with the orchid petals and pasta, brought out the haters: Who does this woman think she is? Anyone should be so lucky to eat pizza in Italy on a publisher’s dime! How dare Gilbert suggest she had genuine problems! A flip parody written by comedy writer Andrew Gottlieb from a jilted husband’s point of view — called Drink, Play, F@#k — followed, which Warner Bros. is developing as a Steve Carell vehicle. Meanwhile, the publisher Hyperion just dumped a book by Gilbert’s ex-husband, reportedly because it wasn’t controversial enough. Did the guy not stab Gilbert in the back — was that the problem?

Gilbert’s detractors have long flocked to Eat, Pray, Love‘s Amazon page and penned nasty, deeply personal reviews: ”She should perhaps speak to those battling life-threatening diseases,” reads one written under the guise Eat Pray Shove (It), ”or raising children alone, or taking care of an elderly parent, or worried about where their next meal is coming from.”

Why should she? Gilbert wrote about what felt like the most important, defining time of her life, and millions have found her story useful and stirring. Adult fans of the Twilight series, who put their children to bed after a long day of hard, unglamorous work, want to be reminded of their younger selves. Sex and the City devotees love Carrie not because of her shoes or her sex life but because they aspire to her level of intimacy with her female friends. Should harmless escape routes really be so offensive to those who don’t get it?

Gilbert has stopped going on Amazon to read her reviews. ”All you end up doing is defending yourself to people who you don’t know,” she says. ”Two weeks later you’re on a lovely walk in the woods with your dog and you’re having an argument in your head with somebody from Amazon.com. There are very legitimate reasons to not like my book. But it’s a little lame to dislike it before you’ve read it.” And so she puts the scorn in the rearview mirror, determined not to let anything take away from a massive professional achievement. In January she published Committed, about marrying the man she met in Bali: ”Now I never, ever, ever, ever again have to write the book that comes after Eat, Pray, Love. I’m free!”

For the movie premiere in New York on Aug. 10, Gilbert plans on wearing a ridiculously silly red dress and whooping it up. She has already seen the movie, and loves it. ”The criticism that comes to Eat, Pray, Love is ‘I don’t care about this selfish bitch!”’ she says. ”But Julia Roberts has a wonderful way of making you immediately want to see her do well.” The next morning Gilbert will go home to New Jersey, to her husband and their dog and garden, and sit back down at her computer, this time to the skeleton of a novel. ”I know that the cinematic version would end with me in a soiled nightgown drinking martinis at 10 in the morning,” she laughs. Does our culture begrudge women their success and untraditional passions? Yes. ”But I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do about it,” says Gilbert, ”other than continue to live our lives and make the work we feel like we were put here to make.”

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