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.
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.
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.
I read it, read it fast, glanced at the last 4 or 5 pages. Too long.
Interesting story though. Good characters. Better editing.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!