City of Girls
In this brand-new love letter to New York City, the follies of youth and the joys of the theater, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert brings us the uneven story of a woman named Vivian Morris. Morris comes to New York for a summer vacation in 1940 and never really leaves – and tells us about it all in a letter to the daughter of the most important man in her life.
Vivian Morris’ freshman summer break from Vassar is fated to become a permanent one the second she arrives in the Big Apple. A terrible student whose family is at its wit’s end with her, they have all but kicked her out of the house and hope a visit to her Aunt Peg will provide some grounding. When Vivian sees Peg’s crumbling old theater – The Lily – and witnesses its D-level theatrical presentations, Vivian falls in love with its vaudeville-era elegance as well as its rollicking backstage life.
Vivian soon becomes a part of the theatre’s chaotic daily operations, going from usherette to costume director to budding costume designer. At the same time, she plunges head first into a whirlwind life of tippling, frank gossip and frequent casual sexual encounters, the same kind of existence indulged in by the showgirls she hangs out with.
But World War II looms on the horizon, and Serious Dramatic Actor and Peg’s old friend Edna Parker Watson descends on the cheap and cheery environs of the Lily Playhouse with her handsome younger husband, Arthur, agreeing to put on a show for her old friend. The roaring twenties play City of Girls is created for the occasion, and life at the Lily will never be the same for anyone because of it. The play is a huge hit, Edna becomes the toast of New York… and Vivian ruins it all impulsively with a scandalous one night stand, exiling her from life at the Lily entirely. Will she settle for mediocrity or claw her way back to the life she adores?
One of the best things about City of Girls is how well Gilbert captures life in the 1940s, and a universe made of girls who were just as freewheeling as their own daughters would become twenty years later. Vivian’s stories of her wild youth will expose you to a time and place you likely never knew existed, and it does so without shame or judgment but with a large dose of humor.
The characters are interesting enough to anchor entire novels of their own; in fact, I wish Aunt Peg, her domestic partner Olive and her husband-on-paper and creative partner Billy had been the center of the novel. Even the fascinatingly compartmentalized Edna is, on the whole, more interesting than the childish and endlessly horny Vivian, who eventually became a trial to follow.
Vivian is a classic imperfect heroine; her zest for life and combination of rue and shamelessness are amusing and sometimes endearing, but she makes so many boneheaded mistakes due to her stubborn self-righteous pursuit of pleasure that one is left with the desire to shake her. Her brushes with men are at turns funny, harrowing, clumsy and ridiculous, but she’s the kind of girl who processes being saved by a friend from a violent quasi-consensual gangbang that leaves said friend with a black eye by pouting that she will never again be excused from a room where things happen; there’s a note of almost sociopathic selfishness in her endless pursuit of orgasm after orgasm. This and many other incidents are used to make a good point about the uneven hand of social justice when it came (and still comes) to promiscuity between the sexes, followed by unoriginal ones about gender stereotypes.
But those big beautiful lyrical descriptions of life in New York dragged after a couple of hundred pages, and so did the dozens of irrelevant-to-the-plot sexual encounters Vivian gambols through. Gilbert seems to believe that the very fact of Vivian’s aromantic and sometimes amoral promiscuity is entertaining, and for a while it is – but then the narrative tries to evolve into a statement about the character “satisfying a primordial internal darkness” within herself by humping around and the whole novel falls off the rails into bathos.
At City of Girls’ midpoint we suddenly flash forward twenty years into the future and are deposited into a new world. Most of the characters we were introduced to and learned to care about in the novel’s first half either die or are shuffled off-page for new and frankly underbaked ones that exist to underscore Vivian’s character development. This is a natural process of making it to a ripe old age in real life, but along the way Gilbert seems to forget how much Vivian’s love of drama and the stage drove her to her choices and shrinks her existence down, making it ordinary and dull enough to cause the reader to wonder why Gilbert has spilled this much ink over her. Again – this may be what happens to people in real life, but it’s not entertaining to read in fiction.
The second half of the narrative almost feels like a different story; to a point, the book could have easily been cleaved in half and not suffered from the loss of its words. For all of its desire to be light and effervescent, it bogs down and then rushes its last moments – summing up whole decades of Vivian’s life in around a hundred pages without telling us why we should care about anything she’s done since the war. Yet Gilbert avoids sparing us the story of how Vivian got gonorrhea from one of her swains. When we learn how the Angela she’s been addressing this story to relates to her, the narrative provides such a total left turn in tone and spirit that one is left to tilt one’s head and wonder why the author has been so…very long-winded.
Had City of Girls ended a hundred or so pages earlier than it does, it would’ve been a great novel. Instead it trips over its own plot twists, leaving the reader wondering how the extraordinary young woman of its first half turned into a boringly self-satisfied – and ultimately, in spite of her protests, totally ordinary – creature.