Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
It’s been six years since Elizabeth Gilbert’s last work of fiction, The Signature of All Things (reviewed by Harriet, here), a warm, playful doorstopper telling the eventful life story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional nineteenth-century botanist whose staid existence in her father’s Philadelphia home unexpectedly opens outward through marriage, an adventure in Tahiti, and a brush with the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Gilbert revealed multiple sides of Alma – everything from her enthusiasm for mosses to her erotic yearnings. A sexual coming of age, an unconventional woman’s choices, and the winding course of a long life are a few elements that recur in City of Girls, a fun, sassy novel set mostly in 1940s New York City.
Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris, expelled from Vassar College after failing all of her freshman classes, arrives in the city in the summer of 1940 to sew costumes for her Aunt Peg’s rundown theatre, the Lily Playhouse. She quickly falls in with a disreputable lot of actors and showgirls, including a roommate she idolizes, Celia Ray. Celia and the others view Vivian’s virginity as a problem to be solved as soon as possible. They arrange for a local doctor who’s familiar with the showgirls’ sexual charms to deflower Vivian in his home, a scene that’s as hilarious as it is horrific. The punchline? As Vivian is leaving she asks Dr. Kellogg what kind of doctor he is. He’s a veterinarian.
From here on Vivian is a sexual dynamo. She and Celia hit the town every night and don’t come back until the wee hours. They drink as much as they can and sleep with any man who’s willing. “There was always an element of peril in the way that Celia and I thrust ourselves into the world,” Vivian remembers as an old woman. “We made ourselves available for anything that might happen. … We were turbines of energy.” Although she has a few pregnancy and VD scares and Celia meets men who are rougher than she’d like, it’s a mostly carefree life that diverts their attention from what’s happening in the wider world. “Perhaps you think I should have noticed earlier that there was a war coming,” Vivian teases, “but truly the subject had not yet landed in my consciousness.”
Another distraction from the impending war is the arrival of Edna and Arthur Watson, English actors whose home has been destroyed in the London bombings. Edna and Aunt Peg are old friends from nursing service in the First World War, and Peg offers the Lily as living quarters for as long as the Watsons need it. Although Edna is a famous Shakespearean actress, perhaps she could see her way to acting in some of the Lily’s frothy revues? When Peg’s absentee playboy husband, Billy Buell, returns, he writes a new comedy for the Lily with a starring role for Edna. It’s a smash hit, and Edna wins over the critics, too.
Meanwhile, Vivian falls for Anthony Roccella, the play’s insouciant male lead. When jealousy and misunderstandings come between the cast members, she makes a mistake bad enough to get her in the tabloids and jeopardize her future. She’s forced to retreat in disgrace to her parents’. “The sooner you get flattened to the ground, the sooner you can begin to rebuild your life again,” Peg advises. Just a year later, the USA enters the war and Vivian is called back to help with the Lily’s lunchtime shows at Brooklyn Navy Yard. Gilbert thus sets up a stark contrast between prewar and wartime New York City. All frivolity is gone; with her brother in the Navy, Vivian can no longer ignore the gravity of what’s happening.
The novel takes us all the way to 2010, when Vivian is 90 and still brazenly independent. Yet the first three-quarters are devoted to the war years, with the rest of her life seeming like something of an afterthought. I wondered if 1945 would have provided a more natural ending and kept the book from getting overlong. In any case, we learn the basics of the rest of Vivian’s life: she opens a wedding dress boutique with a friend and lives above the shop. She continues to have many lovers (“The only two things I’ve ever been good at in this world are sex and sewing”), yet the most meaningful relationship in her life is a celibate one with a male friend who played a small but significant role in her early days in New York. The entire book is presented as a letter to a minor character (whose identity we don’t grasp until late on), which makes for a chatty and confiding style that engages the reader from the first pages.
The quirky and sexually explicit nature of this coming-of-age narrative reminded me a lot of classic John Irving, while the specifics of the setting brought to mind Wise Children by Angela Carter, All the Beautiful Girls by Elizabeth J. Church, and Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. If I closed the book feeling somewhat underwhelmed, it’s because I wondered if it had all meant very much. Yes, it’s a fairly touching story of how to make an unconventional family and absorb losses – no doubt influenced by the death of Gilbert’s best friend and partner, Rayya Elias, in 2018 – but if Gilbert is trying to make a wider point about slut-shaming being a perennial threat to female sexuality, I’m not sure she succeeds. Rather, this is a book to simply enjoy for the voice and the atmosphere. It doesn’t hold a candle to The Signature of All Things, but it makes for an enjoyable summer fling.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Elizabeth Gilbert, City of Girls (Bloomsbury: London, 2019). 978-1408867044, 470 pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link. Free UK delivery.