City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2019

Title: City of Girls

Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

Published on: 4th June, 2019

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback

Language: English

No. of pages:  470

Synopsis:

From the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Loveand The Signature of All Things, a delicious novel of glamour, sex, and adventure, about a young woman discovering that you don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.

“Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.”

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 ninety-five 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.

My review:

I received a review copy from the publishers in return for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

City Of Girls is part memoir, and part coming-of-age. It is narrated by Vivian Louise Morris, who is now an old lady of 95. From the beginning itself, we see Vivian as a very practical, matter-of-fact woman, who accepts things as they are. Of course, it was not always so. However, she was always a confident woman with her self-esteem intact and on point. In the very first page itself, she says –

“I was always pretty Angela. What’s more, I always knew it.”

Of course that may come off as something a narcissistic person would say, but Vivian was a good person, essentially. And besides, it is nice to read about women who love themselves as they are – quite rare to find that kind today – we all have so many doubts about ourselves, with our looks and bodies, etc.

Easter eggs in the book were the mentions of Gone With The Wind as well as the people associated with it. In a way, Vivian is a foil, or rather somewhat of a modern-day version of Scarlett O’Hara herself.

Dealing with trauma is something that is shown multiple times in the book, although very subtly as undercurrents that determine the actions of the characters. Vivian herself never thought much of her grandmother’s death and how it affected her much – she herself says that it was only then as she narrated her life, that she understood how very sad and bereft she had felt and not even recognized (another effect of being brought up WASP style, I assume!). Later on, after that ‘bitterly regrettable’ mistake, and the comment of one silly boy, we see her suffer. Depression is not really mentioned here, but I do think that Vivian was very depressed for a time. It also shows how some careless words from the mouth of any careless person can affect people. Celia is a character who seems very shallow in the first few instances. But she has admittedly been through so much dark stuff as Vivian later realizes – her trauma is not much explored in the book but I’d love to read about her story. Addiction is another lesser theme I saw through Peg. Her addiction to alcohol is crippling.

Later on, when we see Vivian and Celia get punished for their actions, we confront the hypocrisy of the society, just as the character mentions, the women are always punished but the men get away scot-free with it. And that was so very relatable.

Marjorie is a character I absolutely loved. She is witty and wise and knows what she wants, most importantly, she never cows away from society and its expectations – she has never been afraid of being different even at the cost of being weird and alternate to society’s rules for women. Later on, she does what she wants with her baby and makes her own way despite the fact that society frowned upon it. She accepts herself and is not afraid of being alone – rather she is very comfortable with it. Vivian and Marjorie’s talks are really illuminating, I feel, especially the one they have on page 335.

Olive is another one of the powerful females who is not at all afraid of being herself. She is an admirable lady, responsible and completely different from the rest of the ‘theatre folk’ and I loved this juxtaposition the author played with. Billy is an irresponsible person, as Arthur an idiot and I just couldn’t help but laugh and get frustrated with them at times. Edna is charismatic and I understand that many may have a second thought, but I understand her actions later on in the story and where she comes from. The LGBTQ+ angle is well threaded into the narrative and it is a great addition in some of the characters’ arcs.

One of the most important lessons though is that some wounds simply never heal. They get old and we get used to the dull pain but the chafing, if we notice, never goes away completely. We may forget but that doesn’t mean they go away entirely.  

I had also been watching Sex and the City series simultaneously while I had been reading the book and it was a powerful combo. They reinforce the fact that it is very important for us women to just be ourselves and not be afraid of being alone. It was an illuminating experience for me overall and I shall definitely be returning to this book whenever I feel doubtful of myself and need some womanly inspiration!

Verdict:

I think this is one of the best books I have ever read in this genre. I rate it 5/5 stars!

About the reviewer:

Nayanika Saikia, is one of the foremost book reviewers from the North-east and Assam, and is also an admin for the official India bookstagram page on Instagram. She publishes her own reviews and recommendations for poetry, fiction, non-fiction etc. on her bookstagram account @pretty_little_bibliophile which won the NorthEast Creator Awards 2018, as well as in daily newspapers, online magazines etc.  She can be contacted at nayanikasaikia98@gmail.com .

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