Book Review: “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Hi all! I have to admit, this review is super overdue. My book club (shameless book club plug) finished this book weeks ago, and I forgot to give City of Girls the review it is due. Even though I haven’t seen my book club ladies in a while, (with NYC trying to reopen the restaurants and services and people getting involved in the BLM movement, we have all been pretty busy!) I miss them, and finishing this book was one of our last substantive times together. And even though I don’t love Liz Gilbert (Eat Pray Love was like pulling teeth for me), I have to admit this book packed a punch.

From the Publisher:

“Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.”

Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves – and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.

Now ninety-five years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life – and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” she muses. “After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.” Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.

What I loved:

  • The setting. 1940’s New York, pre-WWII and then in the midst of it. Gilbert brings to life the glitz and glitter of post-Depression, pre-WWII NYC, where the parties ran long and the girls were beautifully dressed, theatre was all the rage, and there was a bit of an awakening. The main “action” takes place backstage at a theatre that Vivian’s aunt owns, and the debauchery and comradery shown also feel like coming home to me (I was a backstage theatre nerd back in my day). But really, it is all about New York here. For anyone who has never lived in NYC or visited, there is a certain draw that the city has, and some people feel compelled to listen. City of Girls definitely shows that well. In fact, this was chosen by my book club for the theme “New York Strong.”
A person only gets to move to New York City for the first time in her life once, Angela, and it’s a pretty big deal. Perhaps this idea doesn’t hold any romance for you, since you are a born New Yorker. Maybe you take this splendid city of ours for granted. Or maybe you love it more than I do, in your own unimaginably intimate way. Without a doubt, you were lucky to be raised here. But you never got to move here—and for that, I am sorry for you. You missed one of life’s great experiences.
  • The WomenI know, could I be more vague? Basically, here is a novel that is replete with women – party girls, straight lacers, lesbians, bisexual women, women who are very sure of themselves and many who are not, and women of all ages. Vivian is just one (I get to her at the bottom…ahem), but altogether, here is a book that celebrates different kinds of women at different points in their life. There is my favorite character Aunt Peg, who is wacky and in love with her theatre and her ex husband Bill and her lover/secretary Olive, on one side of the spectrum, then Celia Ray, tall showgirl and crazy partier on the other, then the indomitable older actress Edna Watson. While it may not pass the Bechdel Test, it does do a great job of giving representation to all sorts of women, you are bound to find someone to relate to. There is also a deep-seated realization in City of Girls that the women are getting a really hard break at these times, and I think a lot of women can relate to that feeling.

Young Celia:

If you are a pretty young woman looking for trouble in a big city, it’s not difficult to find. But if you are two pretty young women looking for trouble, then trouble will tackle you on every corner—which is just how we wanted it.
Older Celia:
It was on the rooftop of our little bridal boutique that I learned this truth: when women are gathered together with no men around, they don’t have to be anything in particular; they can just be.
  • The Writing. Ah, yes, another general statement that can mean anything. I think what I really mean is the “quotability.” while City of Girls has some pacing issues and some of the writing felt extraneous, at the end of the day, this is a damn quotable novel. Vivian as a narrator is sharp as a whip and drops zingers throughout, and her wry and self-aware tone really brings this book alive. I even forgot how much I hate first-person narration (I do, I really do) while reading this. Her observations about her own lack of understanding that WWII was upon them is particularly sharp, and I think a lot of young women (and older ones) would see themselves in the vapidity.

Some favorites:

If I’d known then what I know now—namely: that so many of those beautiful young boys would soon be lost to the battlefields of Europe or to the infernos of the South Pacific—I would have had sex with even more of them.
(As I said once to Marjorie, “The only two things I’ve ever been good at in this world are sex and sewing.” To which she responded: “Well, honey—at least you chose the right one to monetize.”)

What I Didn’t Love:

  • The PacingAs many other reviewers pointed out, City of Girls could have been cut down by about 100 pages if it just took out some of the “gallivanting through New York City looking for sex” scenes. That’s not to say those scenes aren’t fun, they just brought the whole speed of the book down. then, after the “scandal,” the pacing of the book took off like a light, and Vivian describes the last 70 or so years of her life in rapid succession. To be honest, I think those parts of her life may have been more interesting than her one summer as a free lover. It does also stretch credulity that this is supposed to be a letter to an old friend’s daughter when it is around 500 pages. Some readers didn’t have a problem with this, but I found it hard to swallow.
  • Vivian (as described by older Vivian). Vivian is supposed to be 80 or so when writing this letter, and yet there are certain things she claims to have “just discovered” about herself while writing this. When she leaves Vassar at the beginning of the book, Vivian explains that she wasn’t sure why she was there, and that she went to college right after her grandmother died. It is during this writing that Vivian realizes she was depressed and probably did poorly form her depression. Vivian at 19 is not likeable, and Vivian at 80 does too good of a job at driving that home. It is as though the successful, humourous older woman hates her younger self, and it got a little old.
I realize now that I always needed somebody to be infatuated with when I was twenty years old, and it didn’t really matter who, apparently. Anybody with more charisma than me would do the trick. (And New York was filled with people more charismatic than me.) I was so unformulated as a human being, so unsteady in myself, that I was constantly grasping for attachment to another person—constantly anchoring myself to someone else’s allure.

Real Talk:

I really, really enjoyed reading City of Girls with my book club. We are a group of strong, diverse women, mostly from New York, and all older than Vivian is in the large part of the book, who got to talk about our shared experiences and empathy with the characters we were reading. While I can’t say I loved most of the characters, the writing and beautiful set “stage” of City of Girlmade up for it. If you can read this with other women, I would recommend doing so. Four waves out of five! A perfect beach day book with a little bit of raunchy “heat” to cool off in the waves.

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