Elizabeth Gilbert is of course the author of “Eat Pray Love” and a writer who until recently I never gave any thought to because I pigeonholed her as a women’s novelist. But I heard her interviewed on two of my podcasts recently, and she seemed wise and smart and likable. And the novel is set in 1940 New York, which is a time and place that fascinates me – it’s the time and place where my parents and aunts and uncles and many of my childhood friends' parents grew up (and then they moved out to Long Island and had us).
And I’ve been trying to read more variety lately, particularly books by women and PoC. So I said sure, why not.
And I’m glad I did.
“City of Girls” is the story of Vivian Morris, a privileged 19-year-old who has been kicked out of Vassar because she is a bad girl. Her parents are at a loss what to do with her, so they ship her off to New York to live with her Aunt Peg, the black sheep of the family, who runs a seedy theater. Vivian, who is beautiful and a brilliant seamstress, gets to work as the theater’s costumer, and immerses herself in the world of theater and nightclubs.
She has a lot of sex. A lot. Gilbert said in her interviews that she wanted this book to be about how someone could be a good person without being a good girl. Vivian isn’t always a good person – she does one thing in particular which is awful – but she tries to be her best, which is all any of us can do, right?
The novel is written in the first person, by 90-year-old Vivian in 2010, writing to a younger woman who has asked Vivian what Vivian’s relationship was to the younger woman’s father. “City of Girls” is Vivian’s answer. She takes a while getting there, and I loved going on the trip with her.
The characters are great, the plot twists are surprising, defying what we have learned to expect from romance (and from action-adventure with romantic B-plots, which is something I read a lot of) and the characters are extremely well-drawn and lovable (except for when we are supposed to dislike them, which we do). The writing style is breezy and witty, and if Vivian sometimes uses language more appropriate to a Millennial or Gen X than to somebody of her generation, well, so what?
Particularly appealing to me, Gilbert fleshes out the worlds of midcentury New York in great and fascinating detail.
The title is “City of Girls” and this is a novel about women; men are peripheral characters, though a couple of them are fascinating.
This novel kept me up late reading one night, which is something that rarely happens to me anymore and I love it when it does.
I expect I will read more Gilbert. But I’ll save Eat Pray Love for last. It still doesn’t seem like my kind of book.