Sunday, June 27, 2021

Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

Imagine if you will a famous, if aging, actress who, with her young, handsome husband agrees to star in a play called City of Girls, written especially for her by a famed playwright and put on in a theater that desperately needs a hit to stay in business. Now imagine that being a mere side plot to a sprawling look at one woman's life from the 1940s to 2010. Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls is about the New York City theater world and freedom and judgement and love and embracing and accepting all the experiences of life, good and bad.

It's the 1940s and Vivian Morris, the daughter of a wealthy family in upstate New York, gets kicked out of Vassar college. Having no idea what to do with this ungrateful child who has no interest in either school or marriage, her parents ship her off to her unconventional Aunt Peg in New York City. Peg owns and operates a down at the heels, struggling theater called the Lily Playhouse. The shows put on at the Lily are mediocre and formulaic. Vivian, accustomed to wealth, notices all of this but she thrills to the glamorous and sexy NYC theater world anyway. She is a gifted seamstress and her Aunt Peg quickly employs her as a costumer for the theater, giving her an easy way to become friends with the showgirls. She parties hard with them, embracing the alcohol and the sex, and generally behaving as if the world isn't at war until a scandal sends her home with her tail between her legs for a time. But the Vivian she uncovered on her first foray into the City has changed her, taught her to embrace all of her wildness and reject the expected.

The novel is told as one long letter to the daughter of a man she once knew who has contacted her asking for the truth of Vivian's relationship with her father. As conceits go, it is a fine one but in this instance, it is far too long between the address and the end of the letter for it to work comfortably. That Vivian is almost 100 and is looking back at the most formative bits of her life, when she was just discovering who she was and that actions have consequences, makes this an epic of a story. The first part of the novel is full of gaiety and bad (sometimes in a good way) decisions and is loads of fun. Vivian and her friends bounce from party to party, bed to bed, man to man in a flamboyant and glittering world. The second half of the novel, while still full of sex and the embrace of sexuality, felt like a very different novel in tone. Gilbert's writing is evocative and her descriptions of New York through the decades are wonderful. Her characters are eccentric and fabulous and the reader never doubts that Vivian has lived quite a life. City of Girls is overly long for sure, especially if it truly had been a letter of explanation, but it is a mostly interesting look at an independent woman forging her own wild and unapologetic life, discovering the power of forgiveness, and learning about love in all its forms.

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