Monday, January 6, 2020

Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

Pages: 470
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date:  June 4, 2019
Publisher: Riverhead
Source: Library
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Goodreads says, "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." 

It's the summer of 1940 and Vivian should have completed another successful year at Vassar, but she has been sent home from college as she hasn't attended many classes.  It's not because Vivian isn't capable of learning the material at college, but rather, she just isn't interested in this traditional path that her parents pushed her down.  Vivian had a close relationship with her grandmother who taught her how to be a talented seamstress and this skill will come in handy later on in her life.  Her parents, unsure of what to do with her, send her for the summer to live with her Aunt Peg in Manhattan who runs the Lily Playhouse.  While at the Lily Playhouse, she meets a cast of unusual characters, everyone from artists to showgirls.  Vivian's expert sewing skills come in handy creating costumes and the like while at the playhouse.  Also, she makes a good friend in Celia Ray, a beautiful showgirl, who takes her under her wing and brings her out to nightclubs.  Sometimes Vivian would get more than she bargained for in this new world where she learns about sex, drinking, and what it takes to make it in the big city.  However, her fun summer goes right down the drain when Vivian makes a big mistake that not only impacts her reputation, but also the Lily Playhouse.  City of Girls is an interesting historical novel that I found to be wholly compelling. It illustrates a different kind of love story and one that showcases what it was like for women who didn't want to take the traditional path in life.

While I didn't always agree with Vivian's choices in City of Girls, I was really intrigued by her character. She goes through so much personal growth, both good and bad, in New York at her aunt's that I couldn't stop reading. I wanted to know what was going to happen next to Vivian, because she seems to really push the boundaries and make impulsive decisions. It was only a matter of time before she was going to see some major consequences surrounding her choices.  A lot of readers had issues with Vivian promiscuity, but it didn't bother me. Would readers say the same things about a male character or are we just holding Vivian to a higher standard because she is a female from the 1940s? I think Vivian is a woman before her time and just because she wanted some sexual freedom, I wasn't going to try to make her fit into my narrative of what a 1940s woman should be like.  While I didn't approve of every man she chose to be with, I didn't overly judge her sexual experiences, because that is not what this book is about. It's about so much more. So, if you get caught up in this, I think you are missing the bigger picture.

City of Girls is so compelling that I felt like I was watching a classic film.  The descriptions of the playhouse, the city, the costumes, the nightclubs, the imposing war,  and even the dialogue, all felt really authentic. Gilbert did a great job at bringing this time period to life and making it very memorable.  In fact, I even found some parts of City of Girls to be laugh out loud hysterical. There were some sex scenes that even had me laughing which I found to be so surprising.

Originally, I only associated Elizabeth Gilbert with Eat, Pray, Love. I was questioning whether she could write a compelling historical novel and at first, I was very hesitant. Boy, was I wrong!  Gilbert even explores some interesting physiological issues in City of Girls that really had me thinking about women and what certain women had to go through in the past if they wanted independence from men and freedom from the conventional roles that society thrusts upon them.  It also had me thinking about parental expectations and the pressure women faced during the time period to take the traditional path. What will it take for Vivian to follow her dreams and live the life that she wants? 

If you like historical fiction and coming-of-age stories definitely pick up City of Girls. I was pleasantly surprised and it ended up being one of my favorite novels of the year. I was thinking about Vivian and the cast of characters long after I finished the novel.

Did you read this book? Are you a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 


4 comments:

  1. I was NOT a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but memoirs can be hit or miss for me. I think this genre is much more up my alley.

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    1. I hear you. I wasn't sure if she could jump from genre to genre, but I was wrong! I think you'd like this book! Thanks for visiting, Angela!

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  2. I couldn’t stand Eat Pray Love, but I thought The Signature of All Things was well done. I may or may not get around to this, thanks for sharing your thoughts

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    1. If you do, I hope you enjoy it. I was impressed at her ability to write a compelling historical fiction! Thanks for visiting, Shelley!

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