City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Riverhead
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Anyway, at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.
After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.
If you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, you know she offers an unusual perspective on the creative process. Namely, that, beyond the discipline of writing every day there is a spiritual component—as in characters or stories come to the writer if they pay attention. This may be too airy-fairy for some, but I found her new novel, City of Girls, to fit this description of the creative process perfectly. There is no other way to describe Vivian Morris, the novel’s main character. She springs from the page, fully formed, with the opening sentence, “…when I was nineteen years old and an idiot…” What’s not to love about someone with that combination of humor and insight? From that sentence onward, Vivian flows effortlessly. There is never a sense that Gilbert works to bring her to life. She is just there, from the time she is 19 until she is 90 and she is endearing, foolish, flawed, and big-hearted.
Vivian’s sense of her own foolishness is due to the fact that she has just flunked out of Vassar. It’s 1940 and the school would have been the right finish in preparing her for marriage and the kind of life her upper-middle class parents want her to have. Instead, she’s shipped off to live with her aunt Peg in NYC and the punishment turns out to be the kind of education Vivian really wants. Her aunt owns the Lily Playhouse, a rundown theater, and she and her assistant, Olive, as well as an assorted cast of theater people, live above it. There are no boundaries, no rules. It’s nirvana for a girl who just wants to have fun.
“…you may be wondering how it physically possible for us to drink more than we already did, but here is the thing about drinking: one can always drink more, if one if truly committed. It’s just a matter of discipline really.”
Vivian goes from being surrounded by Vassar girls to showgirls and she couldn’t be happier. Her sewing skills make her a hit and soon she’s living what she imagines to be her best life. She’s pals with girls more gorgeous and glamourous than she’s ever known and they introduce her to the world of men, night clubs, drinking, and excitement. She decides that the world of marriage and settling down is not one that interests her, but sex is a whole other subject.
It’s here that Gilbert expands City of Girls from chick-lit into something more universal and timely. The theater world has always been regarded as one on the edge of acceptable norms and in setting the novel here, Gilbert is able to explore coming-of-age issues that are still being discussed now, like women and their sexuality. In the 1940s women couldn’t even buy condoms. A single woman who wanted to have sex without worrying about pregnancy or disease had no options. So, as she revels in her own sexuality, Vivian becomes a rebel.
At the same time, Gilbert doesn’t blithely disregard accountability. In her pursuit of a good time, Vivian makes a mistake that cannot be ignored. It costs her everything she’s worked for and all the friendships she’s made. She is sent back home in disgrace, brought low. It’s only America’s entry into WWII that offers her redemption and Vivian decides to grow up.
City of Girls epitomizes the best kind of reading because it defies labels. Yes, it’s historical fiction and yes, it has a chick-lit vibe early on, but it’s not fluff. It is wildly entertaining, with sharp humor throughout, but Gilbert uses her words to connect as well. There are no ‘normal’ relationships in the novel. And given that it’s set largely at a time when women had no control over their bodies and very little control over the rest of their lives, the stories of all the women in the novel—Aunt Peg, Olive, Celia, Edna, Marjorie, and Angela—are that much more astonishing. Even better is the very real sense that Gilbert cherishes all of the characters in City of Girls and that feeling made me care as well. Together, with Vivian, they spring to life and off the page, representing a range of women’s experiences that is blessedly welcome reading.
“You grow up thinking things are a certain way. You think there are rules. You think there’s a way that things have to be. You try to live straight. But the world doesn’t care about your rules, or what you believe. The world ain’t straight, Vivian. Never will be. Our rules, they don’t mean a thing. The world just happens to you sometimes, is what I think. And people just gotta keep moving through it, best they can.”