Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
City of Girls
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published: 4th June 2019
Number Of Pages: 480
I came late to Elizabeth Gilbert’s work. I tend to resist bestsellers, primarily because they don’t need extra attention and so many good books are wallowing in obscurity, and also because the hype is sometimes due more to luck or timing than to quality. I didn’t begin with Eat, Pray, Love, but rather the phenomenal The Signature of All Things, published in 2013. I liked it so much that I began a Gilbert binge, in which I read all of her work, including the nonfiction, in rapid succession, and made sure I finished before I started her latest novel, City of Girls. One of the key features of Gilbert’s work, whether short stories, nonfiction, memoir or fiction, is that it is deeply readable, engaging and personal. The reader always feels like a long-standing and dear friend. City of Girls is no exception. The protagonist, nineteen year old Vivian Morris, invites us into her coming-of-age party. When Vivian fails her first year of Vassar, her wealthy parents send her from upstate New York to Manhattan to live with her ‘unconventional’ aunt Peg who runs an old run down theatre called The Lily Playhouse. This, of course, was the best thing that could have happened to Vivian, who is an excellent seamstress and becomes Peg’s costumer for the musical theatre productions that the Lily runs. Vivian is charmingly decadent – a young ingenue up for anything, and she learns more than just costuming from the showgirls who take her on board. Peg lets Vivian do whatever she wants, and what she wants is to have fun.
The story is set in the 1940s, and VIvian’s memoir is written as a loving letter to Angela, who, for most of the book, we only know as “his daughter”. Angela remains mysterious, leaving room for the reader to take on the role of letter recipient. Gilbert does a terrific job of recreating New York during this era, from the impact of America’s incursion into the Second World War, the glamour of the theatre world with its showgirls, the city’s nightlife and prohibition-busting parties, the double standards of behaviour, the NYC vernacular, clothing, scents and smells, to Vivian’s sexual awakening and the consequences of her wild life. Throughout the novel, Gilbert’s power of description shines, and all of the detail helps make for a charming and energetic story. The Lily playhouse could be any old, beautiful theatre – The Lyceum or The New Amsterdam:
The Lily was a great big lump of a thing, crafted in a style that I know now is Art Nouveau, but which I recognized then only as heavy duty. And boy howdy, did that lobby go out of its way to prove to you that you’d arrived somewhere important. It was all gravity and darkness—rich woodwork, carved ceiling panels, bloodied ceramic tiles, and serious old Tiffany light fixtures. All over the walls were tobacco-stained paintings of bare-breasted nymphs cavorting with gangs of satyrs…(23)
The Dickensian characters that surround Vivian are all appealing, whether fun, repellant, ridiculous, larger-than-life or small-minded. Gilbert takes great care with her characters, making even the most minor walk-ons memorable. Stolid Aunt Peg: “tall and sturdy, clipboard in hand. Her chestnut-and-gray hair was cut in an ill-considered short style that made her look somewhat like Eleanor Roosevelt, but with a better chin” and the stern, responsible and uncompromising Olive Thomson, a “brick of a matron”…”plain on purpose”, shine. Gilbert’s characters are lovingly described, and linger in the mind, from Celia Ray, the “gorgeous creature from the other side of the room” with the deep gravelly voice, to Vivian’s flamboyant and irresponsible uncle Billy Buell, who simultaneously saves the day with writing skills, and also wrecks it.
The book is fast paced, consistently engaging, and is often very funny. It comes across as light and easy, but amidst the intriguing mix of Vivian’s self-deprecation and self-aggrandisement there are serious themes in the book. The key one is the relationship between female desire and male aggression. The book subtly but powerful explores the way in which women are both diminished by the men around them and the ways in which they retain and reclaim power. Vivian is deflowered by a veterinarian masquerading as a doctor, who systematically takes advantage of her, making it clear that this is something he does regularly, and with the consent of his wife. Celia takes Vivian under her wing and the wild, often alcohol-soaked friendship between the two becomes punctuated by the men who they dally with. It’s all fun until the lovemaking turns into “smash and grab”:
You see, it was like this: Celia’s effect on men was to make them so obedient and subservient to her—until the instant they were no longer obedient and subservient. She would have them all lined up before us, ready to take our orders and serve our every wish. They were such good boys, and sometimes they stayed good boys—but sometimes, quite suddenly, those boys were not so good anymore. Some line of male desire or anger would be crossed, and then there was no coming back from it. After the line had been crossed, Celia’s effect on men was to make them into savages. (98)
Crackling around the edges of the novel is the war and its impacts. Gilbert keeps the interface between Vivian’s story and world events very smooth, weaving it in through the plot. Vivian’s brother Walter, an entitled male if ever there was one, drops out of Princeton to join the navy. Famous theatrical duo Edna Parker Watson and Arthur Watson arrive in New York and become trapped when their London house is bombed. The fashionable, talented and attractive Watsons move into the Lily Playhouse and Vivian becomes infatuated with Edna’s “true glamor”. This leads to “City of Girls”, a musical built around Edna’s talent. Vivian’s shenanigans land her in serious trouble, and she is punished. It’s a painful lesson and one that transitions the book into its second part, in which Vivian learns to be self-supporting. Ultimately under all of the glamour, of which there is plenty, City of Girls is a novel about friendship, ageing, and how we make a space in the world for ourselves. Life is full of sorrow, and we all grow old, but there is beauty and power simply in carrying on, and living life to the full:
After a certain age, we are all walking around this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries. Our hearts grow sore and misshapen around all this pain—yet somehow still, we carry on. (342)
The book explores Vivian’s growth, and the way in which she learns to cast off shame, in spite of society’s norms, and enjoy life to its full: “life is both dangerous and fleeting, and thus there sis no point in denying pleasure or adventure while you are here.” Reading City of Girls is above all, a pleasurable experience, which is, after all, what the book is about. Beautifully researched and well embedded in its era, City of Girls is inherently modern and feminist. Vivian is a character who sparkles, and whose overriding joie de vivre can’t help but infect the reader.