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City of Girls


City of Girls

The year is 2010, and 95-year-old Vivian Morris has just received a surprising letter from a woman named Angela, who is the daughter of an old friend. Angela’s mother has just passed away, and she is finally ready to ask Vivian who she really was to her father, who died many years ago. With what I imagine to be a crinkle in her eye, clever, quick-witted Vivian explains that she cannot tell Angela’s father’s story for him --- but she can tell Angela who he was to her. And so begins Elizabeth Gilbert’s CITY OF GIRLS, a witty, flashy and above all delightful foray into 1940s New York City and the Lily Playhouse.

The idea of an older woman recalling her glory days in New York City may seem stale at first glance, but Gilbert infuses her narrator with a voice that is as self-indulgent as it is self-deprecating, and as comical as it is intelligent. Straight away, Vivian tells us everything we need to know about her 19-year-old self: she failed out of Vassar (placing at an impressive 361 out of 362 students), and her parents, not knowing what to do with someone so feckless, sent her packing to live with her aunt Peg in Manhattan at the Lily Playhouse.

A character in and of itself, Peg’s Lily Playhouse is a crumbling, dilapidated, smoke-filled building of chaos located on 41st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues (or what we call Port Authority today). Peg learned about the theater trade as a nurse in the war who often put on shows for sick and injured soldiers, and she has a lot of heart. But the productions performed at the Lily are already outdated in 1940, and Peg’s use of former burlesque dancers acting as showgirls does nothing to elevate the theater’s mostly forgettable storylines. Still, the Lily has a predominantly loyal audience in the low-income locals. Of course, its faults are completely invisible to 19-year-old Vivian, and she is starry-eyed at the glamour and drama (not to mention the seemingly free-flowing alcohol).

"Much like a perfect summer cocktail, CITY OF GIRLS goes down light, crisp and sweet. Pair this book with any summer evening for a simply marvelous foray into sensuality, feminism and, of course, the theater, dahling!"

Peg lends her niece her own husband’s spacious apartment in the crumbling tenement, and she soon finds a roommate in Celia Ray, an extraordinarily beautiful, perfectly hourglass-shaped and husky-voiced showgirl. Before long, the two beauties are practically running Manhattan. After learning that Vivian has immense talent with a sewing machine, the showgirls take Vivian under their wing quickly, helping her lose her virginity, teaching her how to get free drinks and, of course, using her for free, perfectly tailored costumes (it should not surprise you to learn that the Lily does not have a costume budget).

What follows is a summer of gin, sexual promiscuity and...have I mentioned gin? Using both the wisdom of the present day and a sharp eye for what was true in the 1940s, Gilbert explores female sexuality, feminine prowess and general debauchery in a way that only a woman can. Vivian and her cohorts are ahead of their time, but as Vivian reminds us, the past is never quite as pure as our elders constantly tell us. At 19, Vivian feels as though she has invented sex, an idea that makes her laugh as a narrator. Gilbert infuses 95-year-old Vivian with a tenderness for her younger self, but also with the wisdom of age, which makes for a riveting, laugh-out-loud funny combination. (In one of the more memorable lines, elderly Vivian explains that if she knew a war was coming, she would have had sex with even more young men before they were taken from the realm of possibility.)

With Vivian’s help in costuming, it seems as though Lily might start churning out higher quality productions, but that is nothing compared to what happens when Edna Parker Watson arrives. Edna is a famous theater actress in London who became acquainted with Peg in her nursing/wartime theater days. Although she is effortlessly and endlessly glamorous and renowned for her performances across the pond, she is relatively unknown in 1940s America. That all changes when her home in London is bombed, and she and her exceedingly handsome but airheaded husband take up residence in the Lily. Knowing she must find a musical worthy of Edna’s talents, Peg calls on her husband Billy (who lives in Hollywood writing for MGM) to come save the day. Thus “City of Girls” is born, and the Lily is put on the map.

Of course, fame and recognition have their downsides, and with several larger-than-life personalities all residing in one crumbling building, lines are bound to be crossed and mistakes certain to be made. The course of events alter the path of Vivian’s life forever, but her love affair with New York City is not over yet. Gilbert takes us through the next several decades of Vivian’s life with flare, highlighting the big moments and the small, but always through Vivian’s tremendous voice. Transcending the war, the loss of friends and lovers, and her own youthful selfishness, Vivian’s love of New York is the true heart of CITY OF GIRLS.

It should come as no surprise that Elizabeth Gilbert is perfectly comfortable writing characters who upend and upset expectations, and I can see readers disliking Vivian instantly. She is entirely self-absorbed in her youth and unceasingly vain throughout her life. It may shock readers to see that young Vivian barely notices that World War II is imminent, even as her own brother drops out of Princeton to enlist. Add to that the fact that Gilbert does not back away from describing Vivian’s more erotic experiences (and if there is one thing CITY OF GIRLS is full of, it is sex), and you have a portrait of a real woman, flaws and all. It would be easy to take all of these details and cast Vivian off as vapid and selfish, but to do that is to miss the point. Her portrayal of Vivian simply could not have been written any other way, and her honesty, combined with some crackling dialogue and memorable characters who truly leap off the page, makes the novel a blissful page-turner.

Much like a perfect summer cocktail, CITY OF GIRLS goes down light, crisp and sweet. Pair this book with any summer evening for a simply marvelous foray into sensuality, feminism and, of course, the theater, dahling!

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 21, 2019

City of Girls
by Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Publication Date: April 7, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594634742
  • ISBN-13: 9781594634741