City of Girls…
About the Book:
It is the summer of 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York with her suitcase and sewing machine, exiled by her despairing parents. Although her quicksilver talents with a needle and commitment to mastering the perfect hair roll have been deemed insufficient for her to pass into her sophomore year of Vassar, she soon finds gainful employment as the self-appointed seamstress at the Lily Playhouse, her unconventional Aunt Peg’s charmingly disreputable Manhattan revue theatre. There, Vivian quickly becomes the toast of the showgirls, transforming the trash and tinsel only fit for the cheap seats into creations for goddesses.
Exile in New York is no exile at all: here in this strange wartime city of girls, Vivian and her girlfriends mean to drink the heady highball of life itself to the last drop. And when the legendary English actress Edna Watson comes to the Lily to star in the company’s most ambitious show ever, Vivian is entranced by the magic that follows in her wake. But there are hard lessons to be learned, and bitterly regrettable mistakes to be made. Vivian learns that to live the life she wants, she must live many lives, ceaselessly and ingeniously making them new.
It is so wonderful to have a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert again. While I enjoy reading whatever she writes, she does have that special skill of weaving magic through a story. City of Girls begins with its protagonist, Vivian, elderly, receiving a letter from a woman named Angela, who is writing to inform Vivian of the death of her mother. She ends the letter as such:
‘Vivian…given that my mother has passed away, I wonder if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?’
And so begins City of Girls, in which the novel itself is Vivian’s response to Angela’s question.
We are taken back to New York City in the 1940s, guided by Vivian, who was an incredibly naive, and if I’m completely honest, pretty stupid, nineteen year old. But given the hindsight narration of the story, Vivian herself fully acknowledges this, which makes what could have been exasperating into something more amusing. The story is filled with risqué behaviour and debauchery, but as you might expect from Elizabeth Gilbert, important themes lie beneath all of this frivolity, for City of Girls is a story about women – their relationships, their choices, their sexuality, and the ways in which society has, in every decade, demanded some form of subservience from them.
‘This is the image that I think of, Angela, whenever I hear people talk about how the past was a more innocent time. I think of fourteen-year-old Maria Theresa Beneventi, fresh off her first abortion, with no roof over her head, masturbating the owner of an industrial bakery so that she could keep her job and have somewhere safe to sleep. Yes, folks – those were the days.’
‘At the time, reading that article made my conscience feel like a rotting little rowboat sinking into a pond of mud. But thinking about it today, I have to say that it enrages me. Arthur Watson had completely gotten away with his misdeeds and lies. Celia had been banished by Peg, and I had been banished by Edna – but Arthur had been allowed to carry on with his lovely life and his lovely wife, as though nothing had ever happened.
The dirty little whores had been disposed of; the man was allowed to remain.
Of course, I didn’t recognise the hypocrisy back then.
But Lord, I recognise it now.’
Vivian’s honesty and humour makes this a refreshing read. It’s expansive and intricate in detail. We get such a recreated sense of New York City from the 1940s through to the 1970s. The tapestry of history is just sublime. The people, the lifestyles, the changing face of the city pre-war and post-war. It’s like a goldmine of social history and I loved every bit of it. And as to Vivian herself, well, I adored her. Even when she was entirely without sense, but especially once she had come into her own. Vivian’s profession as a seamstress was of particular interest to me. My grandmother was a seamstress, out of the same era, and I grew up around fabric, loose threads, pin cushions, and the dust of marking chalk, so I always appreciate a protagonist who makes their living creating clothes. Vivian was one of those characters who, to my mind, was perfectly imperfect, unapologetic about who she was, but only because she’d been through the wringer to get there.
‘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.’
It seems at times as though Vivian’s response to Angela is a long time coming, but when she gets there, you see why Angela needed to know everything. Sometimes in life, we have no idea of the impact we have upon other people, even after the most fleeting contact. Elizabeth Gilbert shows us this, through Vivian’s relationship with Angela’s father. Their relationship was not what I had expected and it was profoundly more meaningful than I could have ever envisaged.
‘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.’
Needless to say, I loved City of Girls. It more than lived up to its fiction predecessor, The Signature of all Things. Elizabeth Gilbert might not give us fiction very often, but when she does, it’s more than worth the wait.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Gilbert is the Number One New York Times bestselling author of Eat Pray Love and several other internationally bestselling books of fiction and non-fiction. Her story collection Pilgrims was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; The Last American Man was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her follow-up memoir to Eat Pray Love, Committed, became an instant Number One New York Times bestseller. The Signature of All Things was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize. She lives in New Jersey.
City of Girls
Released 4th June 2019