“City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Genre:  General FictionCity of Girls
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date:  April 7, 2020

A friend asked me if I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s third book, “City of Girls.”  I explained that I was the only woman I knew of that didn’t like “Eat, Pray, Love.”  She replied that “Girls” was a better book.  I had promised myself that I wouldn’t read another novel with the word “girl” in the title.  I am so glad that I broke my promise.  My friend was right.  The plot is funny yet also thought-provoking. The story begins in the present, when Vivian, the narrator, is 90 years old. In a letter, she tells her life story to Angela, the daughter of the only man she ever loved (and she had many). Think this is a romance novel? Think again.  Gilbert penned a broad, fun historical fiction of mid-20th-century New York that is jammed with rich characters. The author’s wit shines through the entire book. She starts her letter by telling Angela that she is an “ancient woman still tottering around New York City, absolutely refusing to abandon either her life or her real estate.”

Vivian recounts her life starting from 1940. The author nailed the essence of the 1940s screwball comedies. Think the movie, “Girl Friday” but with a sharp edge.  When our protagonist is nineteen, she flunks out of Vassar College. Her pretentious parents are mortified.  She goes to live in NYC with the black sheep of the family, her Aunt Peg. Peg owns an offbeat neighborhood playhouse, which runs on a threadbare budget. Here Gilbert creates such fun characters, all thrown at the reader at a fast-moving pace. In the upstairs of the playhouse lives the 19-year-old with her exuberant, hard drinking, Aunt Peg and Peg’s no-nonsense girlfriend.  Even though the couple has been together for over 20 years, Peg is still married to a famous Hollywood director who is a notorious—but oh so lovable—playboy.  Add in Peg’s longtime British friend who is a great stage actress. The actress is married to a much younger, not-so-smart, but movie-star handsome man. Last but not least are the sexually free-spirited showgirls. One of them is Vivian’s roommate.  Our nineteen-year-old jumps in headfirst into her new, wild lifestyle. The dialogue in this group is extra sharp “just because these were show-business people.” Yes, there is plenty of reckless sex, boozing and nightclubbing, along with a hilarious account of Vivian’s deflowering.  But this is historical fiction. You will also meet real-life characters from that time such as the theater critic Brooks Atkinson.  And Heywood Broun, the American journalist who founded the media union, “The Newspaper Guild.”  Other well researched, real-life persons have scenes in the book as well. My favorite is Walter Winchell, the newspaper gossip columnist. I need to google to learn if he really was as tawdry as portrayed in the novel.

At the age of twenty, Vivian made a major blunder that enraged the playhouse’s famous actress. A front-page racy photo of Vivian turns her into “A dirty little whore.” The author goes deep here showing female shame. Vivian was banished from her new home and place of work.  She was shipped back to her parents.  Now the novel takes on a different tone. In the second half of the book, Gilbert remains witty. Peg is now an old woman.  She tells her niece “The doctor says that there’s nothing much wrong with me, kiddo, but there is nothing much right with me either.” There is still good-humored banter going on, yet, the writing becomes more serious in this part of the story. When Vivian returns to NYC, she is older, wiser and calmer.  She is still promiscuous but no longer acting like a college girl gone wild. Now the character reads more like an independent-minded woman living her life on her own terms.  Gilbert makes sure the reader gets that her protagonist is decades ahead of her time and we cheer her on for it.  Vivian is simply a sensual person.

This is also when Vivian, and the reader, meet Frank, Angela’s father.  “And then there was Frank. He was a devout Catholic, a police officer, and a veteran who had been through hell in service to his country.  There was nothing of the sensualist about him.” Frank is a WWII vet with posttraumatic stress.  Now Gilbert’s writing captures male shame.  The author explores the notion that it could be every bit as painful as female shame.  Vivian asks him, “for the sake of argument, what if it’s true Frank that you were never made for combat?”  He replies, “It means I’m a coward…a failure…a bad person.”  Vivian becomes angry.  “Now you listen to me Frank Grecco…do you think my aunt is a bad person because she has no control over booze?…do you think I am a failure because I am not pure…Of course you don’t…you’re a wonderful person…you’re no failure.”  This is not your average women’s fiction. Men may enjoy the novel too.  Gilbert proves that she is a powerful storyteller. She writes a sassy tale with non-judgmental, poignant life lessons. She may give you the courage to emulate Vivian’s letter and fearlessly examine your own life.

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