Do you have a period in history that you feel nostalgic for even though you didn’t even live through it? That’s how I feel about 1940’s New York. It just oozes glamour that I miss despite the fact that really I’m not glamourous in the slightest. Particularly at the moment during this lockdown where you’ll find me either in my dressing gown or some mishmash of activewear. So for a much-needed injection of glitz in my life, I ordered City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.
(Won’t it be fun when I don’t have to reference the lockdown in an introduction?)
Now, of course we all know and love Elizabeth Gilbert for Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve also read Committed and Big Magic, so I’m pretty familiar with her non-fiction work. I know she has also written other novels but I haven’t got around to reading them yet, so I was intrigued to find out what her fiction style would be like.
City of Girls finds nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris being exiled to New York after her disappointing performance in college. Her parents have sent her to live with her Aunt Peg who runs the Lily Playhouse, a worn-out, tired theatre. Young Vivian doesn’t know much about life or love, especially not compared to the glamourous showgirls that she is suddenly surrounded by, but one thing she does know is how to sew. She becomes the self-appointed Costume Director and quickly makes herself invaluable, transforming the girls’ cheap outfits into spectacular ensembles.
Now that she has her new girlfriends, Vivian plans to live the New York City life hard. She is drawn to Celia in particular, an incredibly gorgeous showgirl with a colourful history. Through their drunken escapades she gets a very different education to the one that she was brought up with. Living life at such dizzying heights is precarious, so when Vivian inevitably falls, her mistakes shape the course for the rest of her life.
Vivian is telling her story to Angela (who the reader doesn’t meet until the latter half of the book) and straight away I settled into the warm, conversational tone. There’s a lot of little asides and quips which really bring Vivian’s character to life. Because it’s written as if it’s a (pretty long) letter, there are plenty of opportunities for her to speak in hindsight and comment on her younger self with honesty. I’m a bit of a sucker for a strong female protagonist who eschews society’s expectations to live a life chosen by her, not by the will of others. Vivian does just that, creating a family with her best friend and choosing not to settle in a relationship that’s not right for her.
The first half of City of Girls is a right rollicking read – there’s champagne, plenty of sex (the deflowering doctor had me in stitches), and hangovers galore. Pretty much exactly what you expect from the blurb. Halfway through the book the joviality gives way to a more somber tone. Whilst I can imagine that some readers would be disappointed to leave the fun behind, I think it’s a clever move by Gilbert as it reflects the ebb and flow of life. America is also on the brink of war and the Pearl Harbour attack changes the face of the New York she once knew. Things get tough. Vivian grows up, works hard and learns about herself.
It turns out this change of pace was one of my favourite bits of the novel. I loved all the descriptions of New York – the bars, the fashion, the effects of the war – but I also loved the way the characters developed in surprising ways. If you like Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing then I really recommend City of Girls because it’s a corker.
The link for City of Girls is here if you fancy giving it ago!