City of Girls: A Novel

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Hardcover, 2020

Call number



Riverhead Books (2020), 496 pages


Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love. In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves - and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest. Now eighty-nine years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life - and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. "At some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time," she muses. "After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is." Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member tibobi
The Short of It:

It has all the glitter of Broadway but was a tad too long for my distracted brain.

The Rest of It:

I must start with this. I really liked this book. The subject matter, a struggling New York theater, really appealed to me.

The story opens with Vivian Morris explaining to a young woman named Angela, what exactly went down in New York City, circa 1940, and how she came to know her father, Frank. In telling her story, Vivian goes back to when she was a 19-year-old college dropout. Well-to-do, but without goals. She goes to live with her Aunt Peg, who happens to own a failing theatre company and there she discovers who she really is.

I loved the setting so much. Gilbert does an excellent job of setting the stage. A dusty old theatre, limited talent, little to no money to put on anything other than the formulaic shows that only the locals care to see. Vivian has a knack for costuming and finds herself in the thick of it when a famous actress decides to take up residence at the theatre. Edna, is aging but still as glamorous as can be. Vivian is completely smitten with her so when Pam decides to build an entire show around Edna, Vivian creates the most beautiful costumes for her, but a bad decision down the line changes everything and forces Vivian to reflect on her recent actions.

Vivian’s youth and her affinity for hanging out with one particular showgirl gets her into some trouble. There’s a lot of drinking and philandering and although the book is titled City of Girls, it could easily be titled City of WILD Girls. Their antics are amusing, until they’re not.

A good 100 pages could have been cut from this book but if you were a theatre kid or spend a lot of time in theatre now, as I do, you will appreciate this story and enjoy it. The characters leap off the page and are quite memorable. Overall I enjoyed I enjoyed it very much.
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LibraryThing member Gittel
I'd succeeded in avoiding Elizabeth Gilbert until now - I didn't eat, pray, or love with her, or accompany her on her other life journeys either. I thought I could avoid this one as well, but it kept following me - showing up on "best of" lists, "maybe you'd like" etc. When I saw it on the recent releases shelf at my library, I gave in and took it home.

I devoured this novel, and cried through the last 30 pages. I almost quit about 15o pages in because it was a little too graphic, but I'm glad I stuck with it. Gilbert uses a narrative device of framing the book as a letter to the daughter of....someone, and with every new character, you wonder, is this it? Is this the father of the person to whom the narrator is telling her life story?

The second half of the novel speeds up, as does life itself for the author I guess, and the last 30 pages left me glued to my reading chair, reading through tears. Not because of the sadnesses of the book so much as because it makes the reader stop and reconsider their own life, and the choices of those we meet.

I'm emotionally exhausted, having finished the novel this afternoon, and wish I could read it again for the first time. Meanwhile, maybe I need to check out eat, pray, love after all.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
New York in the 1940's around the theater district is the setting for this steamy, somewhat historic novel. The theme (sort of) is that you don't have to be a good girl to be a good person was portrayed the somewhat hedonistic, interesting character of Vivian. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a Suzanne Collins novel from the 70's and wondered where she was going with this...I stuck it out and she sort of saved it in the second half.… (more)
LibraryThing member bogopea
Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely mostly due to the story line. I've read and loved most of Elizabeth Gilbert's work, enjoy her style and and admire the fact that each book is different in subject, time period, plots, etc.
LibraryThing member kayanelson
What an immensely readable and enjoyable book. I liked the story of Vivian but I don't understand why it had to be in answer to Angela's question. I kept wondering when we would find out who her father was and it was rather anti climatic. But the story in between was wonderful.
LibraryThing member Alphawoman
Who edits these damn monsters? It's as if the author is paid by the page.

I read it, read it fast, glanced at the last 4 or 5 pages. Too long.

Interesting story though. Good characters. Better editing.
LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
There are some books I regret buying after reading, and then there's City of Girls which I borrowed from the library and now wish that I'd invested in my own copy - and a free pin while the offer was on! This was an absolute delight to read, with a witty narrator and New York as more of a supporting character than a setting. I haven't wanted to visit the city so bad since reading the Nero Wolfe books!

If I had to dumb down this amazing novel for a quick comparison, I would describe City of Girls as a mash-up of How I Met Your Mother and Sex In The City. Told in retrospect, the delightfully vain and vitally independent Vivian Morris relates her younger years in New York to 'Angela', who has written to ask how Vivian knew her father. Vivian has a quick wit and a very honest appreciation of her youthful faults that instantly makes her instantly sympathetic to the reader. 'I promise that I will try my best in these pages not to go on and on about how much better everything was back in my day. I always hated old people yammering on like this when I was young. (Nobody cares! Nobody cares about your Golden Age, you blathering goat!)'

Going the long way around in telling Angela how she knew her father, Vivian starts by describing how she was packed off to live with her Aunt Peg in pre-war Manhattan. Not exactly a punishment for being thrown out of Vassar, nineteen year old Vivian is in her element, given free rein by her theatre-owning aunt and falling in with showgirl Celia. She erupts into a new life of good times and sexual freedom, partying all night and sleeping around. When her aunt's estranged husband returns from Hollywood to write a play for exiled English stage actress Edna Parker Watson, Vivian becomes the honorary wardrobe mistress - and falls in love with the leading man. The glamour and romance of New York can't last, however, and Vivian has to learn how to take charge of her life before she find her place in the city.

Stretching from 1940 to the 1970s, I love how Vivian's voice ages with her, even in flashback. Like Scout in Mockingbird, that's a neat narrative trick which draws the reader deeper into the story because we feel like we're growing up alongside the character. She's bright, enthusiastic and completely green when she arrives in New York, shocked and entranced by her aunt's theatrical friends before being drawn into their bohemian lifestyle. Then, drunk on freedom and new experience, Vivian becomes even more selfish and decidedly arrogant, to the point where only her mature self maintains the reader's sympathy. When her flimsy independence and popularity is lost after one careless act, Vivian remains self-involved and immature but then the war gives her another chance at the life she loves.

The play - 'City of Girls' - written by Aunt Peg's husband Billy to be performed in the crumbling grandeur of the Lily Playhouse also seems so real - I could almost hear the musical numbers! And the lost city of 1940s New York City, completely remodelled after the war - I loved reading about the close communities and seedy nightclubs.

Definitely recommended - to buy not borrow!
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LibraryThing member midwestms
Women's roles in the 40s in New York City before the war. A coming of age tale, and the attainment of love in unexpected places and people
LibraryThing member etxgardener
In 1940 Vivian Morris finds herself asked to leave Vassar College for poor performance. She comes to New York City to stay with her Aunt Peg who runs a down-at-the-heels midtown theater called The Lily. The shows put on at the Lily are fairly mediocre revues, but the tickets are cheap and the girls are pretty enough to draw in a neighborhood crowd. Aunt Peg is married to a famous Hollywood director, but he isn't around much and Aunt Peg's constant companion is the gruff Olive, who will immediately be identified as a lesbian by all but the most naive reader. Vivian is befriended by the show girls and is almost immediately drawn into a life of sex, alcohol and late nights. One wonders what her straight laced parents were thinking in allowing her to go and live ith her Aunt Peg. Of course Vivian ends up making a hash of things and finds herself in the midst of a sandal that sends her back to her parents' house with her tail between her legs. But in the end, she finds a deeper love that changes her life forever.

The story is told as a long flashback by the now 89-year old Vivian in the for of what must be an extremely long letter to a young girls whose relationship to her only becomes apparent at the very end of the book. The book's plot has many, many holes which maybe won't bother Elizabeth Gilbert fans, but will to more serious readers. However it's summer and this is a fast read. So if you're inclined, throw it in your beach bag.
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LibraryThing member bookczuk
A look back at New York in the 40's told in one long memoir/letter. Pretty compelling in it's own right and an interesting life/viewpoint. I would have loved to see the musical of the play in the book.
LibraryThing member ygifford
Loved it. One comment...stick with it. It will make sense. The writing is great as always. The story is captivating. Sex, love, feminism and breaking stereotypes.
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
A rather sheltered young woman goes to New York to live with her aunt in a rather rundown theater. And quickly becomes a bit more worldly. Well, okay, a lot more worldly. Okay, loose. This book reads as a long letter written to Angela, whose father apparently had a too-close relationship with this woman, Vivian. And now old, Vivian explains her life in all its glory and all its glorious mistakes. The descriptions of her showgirl friends, her aunt, the less than normal relationships, especially in the 1940s, and the connections among the different characters made this book a delight to read. I loved the atmosphere, the characters, the bad choices, the good ones, and the pace of this story. The Audible edition has great narration, too, which just added enjoyment for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
Incredibly fun historical fiction about theatre in 1940, but then the second half meanders too much.
LibraryThing member vidy
Didn't finish reading. Tried to be too clever.
LibraryThing member amysueagnes
As a huge fan of historical fiction, stories of New York, and stories of women finding their spirit (and losing it, and then finding it again), I'm surprised that this book didn't click with me.

City of Girls has a big of a "how I met your mother" vibe, in that the story is written as a letter by Vivian, our narrator, to Angela, about what Angela's father meant to her. The letter itself is an almost 500pp novel, which I must say takes quite a few turns before getting to its premise. The story is packed with delightful characters (some more multi-faceted than others) and nostalgic descriptions of Hell's Kitchen (site of a lot of theatre) pre-Port Authority Bus Terminal (site of a lot of Law & Order scenes). I think a change in structure (from rough letter form) and some cutting (or perhaps separating the book into parts instead of just chapters?) would have helped me grip on to the story a little more.… (more)
LibraryThing member Narshkite
A joy to read. It reminded me a bit of Rules of Civility, a book I loved. It is not so immersive as Towles book, and the writing not as good, but there are some parallels For the first half this was a five star read for me, but I don't think the storytelling after the 1940s was as lovely or the characters nearly so well drawn or authentic as time marched on. It felt like Gilbert was enjoying the writing less as time went on, but of course that is supposition. Still a really good read that celebrates friendship, women's autonomy (which includes the freedom to make bad decisions as well as good), and the privilege and beauty of chosen family. An added bonus: this book is a rebuke to the rising tide of right wing reactionary bullshit regarding gender roles and isolationism and American "exceptionalism." It’s funny to have a piece of historical fiction so firmly rooted in the present.… (more)
LibraryThing member shazjhb
Such a nice read. Interesting story. Loved the characters.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Vivian Morris is a young girl from a solid family who just flunked Vassar in the early 1940's. She is sent to live with her aunt, Peg, who runs a crumbling playhouse in New York City along with Peg's friend, Olive who keeps a strict eye on the expenses. Here Vivian meets showgirls, actresses, actors, and a whole new life is opened to her. She has always had sewing skills and soon becomes the costumer for the theater. She is befriended by a beautiful showgirl, Celia who takes her "out on the town" and together they enjoy all the wild adventures that NYC can offer. She is initiated into sex by a group of the girls who take her to a doctor who takes her virginity. From then on, nothing can keep in their way of wild times, sex, and liquor.

Good times turn sour when Vivian finds herself in a three-way one-night stand with Celia and the husband of the main actresses at the theater. Photos of them make the gossip column, but thanks to Olive, Vivian's name is not mentioned. Peg immediately send Vivian back to her parents in upstate New York and is escorted back by her brother, Walter, who is as straight and upstanding as Vivian is wild. Back home, Vivian is expected to find a husband and does become engaged to a young man but thanks to the war, he is called away and the marriage does not happen.

Vivian eventually is rescued by Peg who needs her sewing skills. The war effort is on and the theater finds work by entertaining the workers at the Navy Yard. The work is not glamorous and life becomes routine. It is only after the Shipyard is closed and a reunion is held, that Vivian comes in contact with a young man that was with her brother when he drove her back to her home after the scandal.

The entire book is written as a telling to some unknown person, Angela who has asked Vivian what her relationship was with Angela's father. The whole story of Vivian's experiences in NYC is necessary to bring the story to the meeting of this man and their relationship which is quite different than any she has had before.

Loved the character of Vivian, Peg, Olive, and the many other characters who affect her life either for good or bad. The relationship between Vivian and Angela's father was a surprise and a beautiful ending to this story which basically takes up almost all of Vivian's life.

This is my favorite Elizabeth Gilbert. Loved the New York scenes, the interaction of the characters, and the believable plot.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Set primarily in the 1940's, this novel is told from the point of view of 89 year old Vivian, recalling her young adulthood in New York City. After flunking out of Vassar Vivian has been sent by her parents to live in Manhattan with her aunt, the owner of a down-at-the-heels theater. Naive from the beginning, Vivian quickly becomes accustomed to living in the fast lane with her "showgirl" friend. Her rough edges are somewhat smoothed out by her subsequent admiration for and tutelage by a famous veteran actress who undertakes to save the theater. Everything changes when Vivian is involved with a scandal affecting the people she cares most about, and her lack of discretion then continues to haunt her. The glimpse of the fast-paced social life possible in war-time New York is brought to life by the conversational tone of the narrative, and the elderly Vivian's unapologetic retelling of her mistakes and triumphs.… (more)
LibraryThing member brenzi
I almost gave up on this book several times because the first half was just too much fluff for me. I listened to it on audio, narrated beautifully by Blair Brown whom I recognized immediately from her role on Orange Is the New Black. She was the best thing about this book.

I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and was hoping for another historical fiction of that caliber but it wasn’t to be. The first half was about a young girl, on her own in NYC for the first time who has an aunt who runs a second rate playhouse. She offers her niece a job as the costume person because of her sewing skills. They put on shows, the girl makes a fool of herself by painting the town indiscriminately and having A LOT of sex. Ho hum. I’m too old for that kind of nonsense.

By the second half of the book, when the main character, Vivian, has lost all and returned to her home in upstate NY to live with her parents, I was finally looking forward to finding out what would happen next in her life. That kind of saved this book for me. Much more interesting. Story of two books. Read if you dare.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
(While reading this book, there were times when I felt it was just stupid, but I'd continue reading and be totally engaged. Some of the storylines worded well (theater, family, war, dress/costume making), but Vivian's sexual prowess throughout the novel was too much. It made the novel too long. However, because I did grow to care about Vivian, I kept reading and most of the time was glad I did. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first.… (more)
LibraryThing member pdebolt
Elizabeth Gilbert has crafted a clever novel with well-developed characters that begins in 1940 with Vivian as a teenager heading to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a run-down theater where plays are performed and where many of the.actors, including Vivian, live. Vivian has a skill for dressmaking, so provides a valuable resource for the performers. Vivian eventually becomes swept up in the hedonistic after-hour parties in various Manhattan clubs with a showgirl. One especially drunken incident becomes her downfall, and sends her back to her parents' home with lingering mortification.

Her life story is written for a woman named Angela when Vivian is 89 years old. The importance of this relationship is not revealed until the end of the book, and adds additional significance to our understanding of the life she had led. This is an engaging story by a skilled story teller.
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LibraryThing member mplantenga11
This was a fun listen as an audiobook. I love how quirky Vivian is and how she tells things like they are with no sugarcoating. The antics she got into and all of the characters that weave their way in and out of her life fill the story with never-ending entertainment. I think if I read this as a hardcopy book I would have grown tired of it but only listening on the way to and from work made it more bearable to spend the time needed to read it.… (more)
LibraryThing member coffeefairy
Elizabeth Gilbert is one of those authors who I will always be interested in reading when she puts out a new book. Her storytelling and character building are top notch.

If I stopped reading mid-way and reviewed the book, I would not have relayed such a high opinion. I knew the book was engaging and interesting enough, but I wasn't seeing the bigger picture. It's only after finishing reading it and seeing Vivian's growth from start to finish, that I'm able to consider the book as a whole and realize that I quite like it.

This review may sound a little weird. Let me back up.

I was, I confess, a little bored in the beginning. Just a little, because the writing and characters and plot are interesting. There seemed to be a lot of minutiae that didn't seem to have a purpose in the book and I found my mind wandering. This is where I could see movie magic being amazing (a film adaptation of City of Girls is in the works) and glossing over extra details that don't advance a film will work nicely for City of Girls, in my humble opinion.

Vivian. Vivian. Vivian. Here's another confession: I didn't like her in the beginning! (I'm not entirely sure she's supposed to be a likable character though). She confesses to being narcissistic in the book and boy, does it show! Still though, that doesn't turn me off from reading a book. I don't need characters to be likable, just real and human, and that she definitely is.

Something really awesome started happening as I kept on reading. Once Vivian hit her mid-20s, I found that the older she got, the more interesting she got. And I love that we got to go along on this wild journey with an immature young'un that we got to see grow.

My favorite characters in the book are Peg and Olive. They're freakin' brilliant and twin pillars in Vivian's life. They get some of the most choice quotes and advice-giving moments in the book, words that I want to write down and post somewhere prominent so I don't forget. Olive especially, has the best piece of dialogue toward the end of the book.

City of Girls challenges and expands the definition of love in a really poignant way. I don't want to give spoilers, so I'll just say that unconditional love is a big theme of City of Girls, and it doesn't always look like what you think it's going to look like.

Now I want to start making out my dream cast for the movie!
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LibraryThing member KarenOdden
A beautifully written novel that purports to be a letter from Vivian to her friend Frank's daughter Angela, telling the truth about herself and what Frank meant to her. (In this respect, it reminds me a little of Peter Carey's THE TRUTH HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG.) I loved Gilbert's book partly for Vivian's fresh voice and the lovely clarity of the writing, but also for the generosity of spirit, the celebration of strong women and their friendships, and the compassion at the core of this book. My favorite lines: "After a certain age, we are all walking around in this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries. our hearts grow sore and misshapen around all this pain--yet somehow, still, we carry on."… (more)


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