City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert is a coming of age story about a beautiful young girl living in New York in the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman looking back on her life City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity. Having loved Eat, Pray, Love back in the day I was excited to dive into City of Girls!
ABOUT CITY OF GIRLS
In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters. From the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves. And the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. Read full synopsis here
Vivian proceeds to tell her story about the excitement of life at The Lily theatre but also considers her faults and mistakes. Starting the novel at 19 years old, Vivian gains some perspective and shows some personal growth by the end of the story. But Vivian is, unfortunately, not a very interesting character. Surrounded by beautiful and charismatic showgirls all who seem to have such vibrant personalities. But unfortunately for us, all Vivian does is have sex and sew. And relies on her good looks to get her through for the rest of her life.
Gilbert does a great job at the start of the book; you feel like you are right there with the showgirls. She captures the energy of The Lily and the spirit of the time period. The first half of the book is happy and full of promise. Then Vivian finds herself in a messy situation that shocks her and causes her to run away. She takes a hard look at her life and what she has become in it.
This marks a distinct turning point in the novel and the second half of the book becomes more cautious and somber. There is also a shift in tone and references to food shortages and neccessary life ajustments through WWII, though the content isn’t heavy with Vivian and Peg still involved with some part of theatre life. This is the part of the book that forces Vivian to grow up a little bit to do her part and where her core relationships with Peg, Olive and Majorie really become cemented.
Elizabeth Gilbert explores the theme about a woman who isn’t destroyed by her sex life. However I felt that Vivian MADE it define her and it became part of her persoanlity. I’m not sure this message holds the same weight now as it would have 10/20 years ago. What is wrong with a woman having lots of sex while also being in a healthy relationship? I appreciate the concept but this is sex that is meaningless for the reader and also for Vivian. Not that it has to be meaningful! Arg this left me very conflicted.
There are moments where City of Girls becomes the novel I want it to be. Unfortunately these moments are far between with chapters that drag and I wouldn’t blame anyone for not picking it back up again. I loved the early setting of The Lily and the 1940s showgirls but the last half of the book failed to grab me. Unfortunately by the time we are revealed who Angela is and her relationship to Vivian we are bored and simply don’t care by then.
Compared with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (which you can read about here). Evelyn is a llttle more plausible and she is certainly more likeable. But I will say that I think my epectations were too high. I think I was looking to be inspired, but if you have the patience for perservering, the story is fun and I loved the backdrop. But wished we’d spent more time in it. City of Girls is a good vacation novel but if you’re after something a little deeper or historical fiction this probably isn’t it.