Elizabeth Gilbert’s “City of Girls”

August 24th, 2019  |  Published in Summer 2019

Elizabeth Gilbert, whose “Eat Pray Love” was both highly acclaimed and highly popular, has returned with a terrific new novel, “City of Girls”, surprising in scope, depth, and acuity.  Partly an adventurous romp, this rite-of-passage novel about a nineteen year old, unfocused, seemingly spoiled upper middle class young women from small-town, Upstate New York becomes a serious feminist book, which the reader won’t be expecting, and which is part of this wonderful novel’s structure and appeal.

Vivian Morris, the narrator/protagonist, has spent a useless, pointless freshman year at Vassar in the early l940s, where she skips classes and flunks out. She’s interested in little except clothes and the like; after she leaves school, and briefly returns home (her father runs a large mining company and her mother does horse shows and volunteer work), she’s sent to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg, who runs a somewhat tawdry live theater, located where the Port Authority now is.  Peg’s an eccentric, to say the least; married but living separately from her husband, also in theater/movies in Hollywood, it’s clear that Aunt Peg’s living as a lesbian with a dour woman she’d met in England doing Red Cross work in England who also makes sure the bills are paid and the lights stay on in the theater, which caters to less affluent neighborhood men. The theater stays alive with live light entertainment, plays/musicals with silly plots and lots of showgirls. Aunt Peg and her partner live above the theater (most theaters had apartments above them, on the third and fourth floors; it was not uncommon for the theater owners/producers to keep girlfriends in them). Vivian is given an apartment, where she meets the other tenants/regulars, all involved with the theater, the most compelling of whom is the unforgettable Celia Ray (born with a Polish name from the Bronx, Ray is the ultimate showgirl sex goddess, who promptly moves into Vivian’s apartment and bed and out of a literal closet she’d been sleeping in). Sundry other characters involved with the plays live there, too; Vivian’s eyes are opened quickly by the world of the stage and people she’d never dreamed existed while living in Clinton,New York.  And Vivian has been sewing her own clothes for years, and begins to both create and design costumes for the showgirls in the plays.

When the famous actress Edna arrives from bombed-out London, she and her showboy , much younger husband also move into the theater; a serious dramatic actress, Edna’s a longtime friend of Aunt Peg’s. To make a long story short, Aunt Peg’s ne’er do well husband returns to create a comic musical starring Edna, which may well save this little theater.  Meanwhile, though, Vivian, having befriended the showgirls, has been deflowered by a male friend of the girls, and begins her sexual odyssey and her romp through such nightclubs at The Stork Club in New York, always with Celia Ray: Gilbert’s done a superb job in recreating this New York theater scene from the war years; this part of the novel is fun and lively , until Vivian gets caught in a three way with Edna’s husband.

After a brief return to Clinton/home, where she almost but doesn’t marry a local boy made good (the breaking of this engagement is hilarious),  Vivian will return to New York: what happens to her in the next sixty years is much condensed.  She’s made a good female friend in her theater days with a woman whose family is in the rag trade–that’s where Vivian found all the materials for her costumes–and these two women end up starting a business making custom made bridal gowns–but they also build a life together, living above the story, though separately.

This novel excels at examining the lives of a variety of women (the girls of the title), how they interact and how they help one another; watching Vivian go from being a spoiled, unexamined woman to one of achievement and assurance is a wonder: don’t expect Vivian to become a judge or  a professor or some such; her basic character doesn’t change, but as she matures and learns to be independent (she doesn’t marry by choice) long after the theater has closed makes this novel one of the finest books about the education/maturation of one young, unfocused woman through life experiences and good friendships (and a native talent for sewing). At times, the novel is immensely moving/touching/elegiac; the brief return, for example, of Celia Ray decades later is remarkable writing . Gilbert knows how to condense years of living into single paragraphs as she fast forwards the novel,  as she heats up the emotional tempo of the book, which is also about resilience, about the magnificence of New York, a city full of former small town Americans, and about the growth of women; she creates as diverse a cast of characters as you’re likely to read about: the novel is quintessentially American in its nod to entrepreneurial spirit and opportunities for creative expression.

A pitch-perfect novel with a riveting plot, a serious feminist book without any preaching, a novel which repeatedly celebrates New York and integrates people of wildly diverse backgrounds, “City of Girls” is now one of the best ten novels of 2019 so far. It’s also hugely fun and intensely visual, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

–Daniel Brown

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