The glitzy and gritty theatre world of 1940s New York forms the main setting of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel
“For many years now, I’ve longed to write a novel about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires,” Elizabeth Gilbert begins in her letter to the reader of her latest novel, City of Girls. (We quote from the uncorrected proof copy.)
And City of Girls is that novel, refreshingly and triumphantly so. The author of the internationally best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things returns with a sprawling epic set across the decades of World War II and its aftermath in New York City. But don’t let historical reference to the war makes you think that City of Girls is a heavy and devastatingly serious novel, for it is not. It makes you think and feel, like all good stories should, but it is also a joy and delight to read.
The bulk of novel centres on the glittering world of New York theatre, where our protagonist Vivian Morris spends two formative years. Kicked out of college nineteen in 1940, Vivian is sent to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who runs a small run-down theatre company called the Lily Playhouse in New York City. There, she is pulled into the fascinating, glamorous life of showgirls, dancers, actors and playboys who have wild sexual adventures for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now in her nineties, Vivian looks back at those years and how they have changed her life, narrating everything to a younger woman named Angela who has a yet-to-be-revealed connection to Vivian. With the help of the showgirls she befriends at the Lily, she loses her virginity through probably the most hilariously bizarre episode of someone losing their virginity we’ve ever read. What follows are nights of carousing into the wee hours and sex with lots of men, all in the search for riotous action.
It is also riotous fun to read about Vivian’s reckless adventures and sexual explorations, but if not for the retrospective commentary from an older, more mature Vivian, the novel might have been just that – fun and frivolous. Brought up in a rich family and surrounded by fellow rich people, young Vivian would probably be a naive and superficial narrator. And her privilege and ignorance of her own privilege are what older Vivian picks up and acknowledges with candor, reminding us that it is the rich white girls who can afford to go on such reckless escapades in place of a stable education and job.
Gilbert pours her heart out in creating these young women who seek out pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It is refreshing, to say the least, to read about young women who make no excuses for their sexuality and for acting on their sexual desires, in fact embracing them. Vivian is a charming and vividly developed character who sees a person’s outfit and style as a door to their personality. Sprinkled with lots of amusing hilarity and colourful characters, Vivian’s two years at the Lily are a breeze to read, and we could not put the book down. Even in its physical and monetary despair, the Lily Playhouse is a fabulous world. Through Vivian’s enchanted eyes, we similarly fall in love with the Lily and its characters. The pleasures of the simple also shine in the Lily, which repeatedly puts up the same ol’ formulaic plays of romance and good triumphing over evil, to entertain the working class and let them escape reality for a while after a long day.
Vivian and her friends’ wild lifestyle does ultimately come with consequences. The novel would be unrealistic and forgettable if it does not. Vivian gets caught up in a scandal that forces her to leave the Lily and New York City, and return home in shame. However, her shame is not the end of Vivian Morris nor the novel. The radical move that City of Girls makes is to show Vivian grow from her mistake into a wiser woman. Her mistake does not ruin her, mortally or socially or psychologically, and she goes on to live a full life that still glows with sex (though with less frivolity) and pursues a long career well-earned based on her talent for sewing.
With the gloom of the war always lingering, City of Girls has its somber moments. Gilbert dives deep yet delicately into the horrors of World War II and the subsequent trauma that soldiers and their loved ones have to endure. The last one-fifth of the novel, after Vivian leaves the Lily, feels almost like a whole other story because of this significant shift in tone, pace and focus. It feels rushed, in an attempt to tie the next twenty years of Vivian’s life together quickly and finally reveal who Angela is and how they are connected to each other.
Nevertheless, though it took us a bit more effort to get through that last part of the novel, Gilbert gets us so deeply invested in Vivian’s life that we would not give up knowing how her future turns out. We read this novel while we were traveling, and it is an excellent vacation read. Gilbert delivers a feel-good story to get lost in, not mindlessly but to keep you rooting for the interesting characters, aching with them at their lowest and rejoicing with them when they grow and rise up to their highest.
City of Girls will be out in bookstores on 4 June 2019. We would like to thank Pansing for providing us with a copy in exchange for an honest review.