Best known for her profound nonfiction books like Big Magic, The Signature of All Things and, perhaps for most readers, her bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest work turns to fiction with City of Girls. Meet Vivian, a naive nineteen-year-old girl who’s been kicked out of Vasser, and subsequently shipped off to Manhattan where her aunt runs a theater company. Set in the 1940s, the story unfolds as Vivian navigates the glamorous surface of the city that never sleeps, only to find an unfriendly underbelly when she makes a cataclysmic mistake.
Told in epistolary form, Gilbert’s writing has a relaxed quality to it, almost like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes. The language is reminiscent of the 40s and she captures the excitement and drive of New York perfectly. Throughout for the first hundred pages, I expected some sort of conflict, an inciting incident, but there wasn’t any to be found. Because why should there be? Vivian is a young white girl given everything she ever wanted her entire life. Even her “punishment” for expulsion from school was getting shipped off to one of the world’s most exciting cities, where she continued to receive an allowance while staying with her aunt rent-free.
This so-called freedom created a space for Vivian to remain vapid, clueless about the real world except to learn about it from showgirls. Incredibly, she didn’t even realize a war was going on until her older brother enlisted in the Navy and she wasn’t able to purchase certain fabrics.
My biggest problem with the story was the main character. I quickly became bored hearing about Vivian’s exploits, from losing her virginity to the perpetuating cycle of drunken nights and new men with her knockout showgirl friend, Celia. I have no issues with promiscuity, especially for young women struggling to find their place in the world, though when you’re reading about someone being promiscuous on a daily basis, it gets old fast.
And though Gilbert’s writing was beautiful and poetic, I kept waiting for something more exciting to happen. Thankfully, that came with the arrival of a grand dame actress, Edna Parker Watson, and Vivian’s uncle, Billy Buell, renowned playboy and screenwriter. Watson added the more exciting, but much-needed mother figure that could guide Vivian on becoming more aware of the world, and Buell brought life with him as he swooped in to help write the musical that would only be befitting the famous actress.
What Gilbert does beautifully is relay the accuracy of the times in how women were treated for having a different partner or were more experimental in their sexual desires. When discovered, they were shunned, sent away, or made to feel deep shame whereas men didn’t have to endure any of that. Sadly, this is still prevalent in society today. This makes me wonder if there will ever be a time when women aren’t ostracized for their sexual proclivities and can hold their heads up high for the choices they make?
Even with its pacing issues, City of Girls makes a terrific summertime read that should please Gilbert’s army of fans. She’s able to encapsulate 1940s New York City perfectly, and what living in the era meant for those who dared to think outside the box. It may take awhile to get off and running, but the story showcases the secrets, sex, and allure intertwining those struggling within the Big Apple and what happens when these once-taboo topics are laid bare for everyone to criticize. Perhaps it’s time we paid more attention to our own moral standards rather than judging someone else’s.