I don’t know why I decided to pick up City of Girls. Historical fiction isn’t one of my go-to genres. I don’t care all that much about fashion. I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert. But something drew me to this book and I decided to give it a whirl because I was in the mood for something outside of my norm. Thankfully, I thoroughly enjoyed myself while reading it. City of Girls was definitely delivered the “something different” I was craving.
“You must learn in life to take things more lightly, my dear. The world is always changing. Learn how to allow for it.”
Vivian Morris is a little bit of a failure. Her affluent, upright parents are fed up with her after she flunks out of college, so they send her to live with her Aunt Peg in New York City. This is where Vivian’s life truly begins. Peg owns and runs a dilapidated playhouse called The Lily, where subpar shows are put on every single week for the working class folks who live in the same neighborhood. While these performances are fairly lackluster, there is some genuine talent to be found within The Lily’s walls. This includes Celia, the stunning showgirl who decides to take Vivian under her wing. Celia is the opposite of a good influence. She leads Vivian deeper and deeper into debauchery until Vivian finds herself crossing a line that cannot be uncrossed.
“Let us not become so cautious that we forget to live.”
Before her ruin, Vivian had found a purpose at The Lily. While she might have flunked out of school, she is immensely talented at one thing: sewing. The woman is a wizard with a sewing machine, and quickly elevates The Lily in her own way by outfitting the cast in the best costumes she can conjure on Peg’s shoestring budget. Vivian falls in love so quickly and so often after her arrival. She falls in love with The Lily, and the city itself, and the lifestyle Celia pulls her into. She falls a little in love with her friend, and the brilliant, classy, superbly talented British actress Edna Parker Watson, who she sees as a mentor. She falls in romantic love for the first time. And she starts to love herself, until the aforementioned line is crossed and she sees herself as a garbage human being.
“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.”
The book itself is a love song to so many things: fashion, theater, friendship, sex, and most of all, New York City. There was an insane amount of sex here. While this is not a lifestyle I can really understand, it was interesting to watch a woman become so joyously free sexually so long before the start of the Sexual Revolution. That was probably my least favorite element of the story, but I can see why Gilbert made this decision for her character. Speaking of characters, I was very impressed by how fully formed and unique each character was, no matter how small their role in the story. I could picture them incredibly well, and every single one of them felt real. Even the titular play, “City of Girls,” felt like a real character to me. It was wonderful to see behind the scenes of such a production. But my favorite aspects of this novel were its voice and its span. I’m a sucker for an epistolary novel, which is what I found here. The narrative is couched in a letter written by Vivian to Angela, a woman who has asked Vivian to explain who she was to Angela’s father. I loved wondering which man mentioned would finally be revealed as Angela’s father.
“The world ain’t straight. 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.”
I also loved the span of Vivian’s letter. She quite literally includes her entire life’s story, and it was delightful to watch important moments in history intersect with that life. We see World War II from the perspective of a romantically unattached woman in a big American city, and how the war impacted those at home. Her contribution to the war effort was also something I’d never seen or considered before, which added another layer of interest. We see Vivian moving through the decades following the war, and all of the changes those decades entailed, including changes in the realm of fashion. It was such a different look at American life in the twentieth century, and I applaud Gilbert for her originality.
“After a certain age, time just drizzles down upon your head like rain in the month of March: you’re always surprised at how much of it can accumulate, and how fast.”
City of Girls was so much more than I expected it to be. If you’re interested in a different take on historical fiction that has much to say about female empowerment and finding the courage to march to the beat of your own drum, this book is for you. I’m intrigued to see if any other of Gilbert’s books works this well for me.