Book review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

(cover image courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing)

The finding of yourself is never an easy thing.

Oh, some people make it look easy, decided in utero that they will be firefighters or orators or presidents and never once faltering from their prodigious path.

But for the rest of us, mere mortals that we are with a lot of growing up to do, it is a messy, complicated, two-steps-forward-eight-steps-back trek that continues, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, most, if not all, of our lives.

The long and circuitous path of self-knowledge and its expression in our imperfectly-lived lives, is brought vividly to life in City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert which charts an enchanting and exquisitely well-written path through the long and storied journey of one Vivian Moss.

Arriving in New York in 1940 after she is sent there by her wealthy parents, disappointed that she has not excelled in her studies at Vassar College, she is a cossetted, spoiled young lady who freely admits in her witty narration – it is her voice we hear throughout the book and while is it self indulgent at times, it is self-awarely so and this makes all the difference – that she much to learn.

For all that self-awareness, Vivian or Vee to close friends and family, is still a nineteen-year-old woman who has not experienced much of life beyond her own privileged bubble, and so when she encounters the giddy bohemian chaos of the Lily Theatre which her freewheeling Aunt Peg owns, she is instantly swept up in its no-holds-barred charms.

“They sent me to New York on the train—and what a terrific train it was, too. The Empire State Express, straight out of Utica. A gleaming, chrome, delinquent-daughter delivery service. I said my polite farewells to Mother and Dad, and handed my baggage over to a Red Cap, which made me feel important. I sat in the diner car for the whole ride, sipping malted milk, eating pears in syrup, smoking cigarettes, and paging through magazines. I knew I was being banished, but still … in style!” (P. 7)

“Swept up” is perhaps far too gentle a term for what happens to easily-impressionable Vivian.

In a theatre filled showgirls, singers and dancers, writers, musicians and an aunt who is the polar opposite of her suffocatingly straightlaced father, Vivian is thrown into a tumult of gloriously debauched possibilities in a city that, a year from entering World War Two is ripe with them to the point of bursting (both a euphemism and not, depending on the circumstances).

For one heady, crazy year, Vivian is transformed, friends with party girls like Celia Ray and Gladys, out all night drinking, having sex and crawling in before dawn each morning all while sewing up a storm and creating costumes for the low-rent but colourfully bighearted productions that the Lily Theatre stages for their working class audiences.

It is a manic, frenzied introduction to a world with which good proper Vivian has had very little to do with to date and it wholly transforms the perspective and world view of someone who always had a healthy dose of the bohemian rebel in her – she and her parents are not close largely because Vivian fails to be as socially compliant as her dutiful, golden boy older brother Walter – and now has the time, energy and capacity to indulge it.

Life being life, this initial idyll cannot last, less because of the nation’s entry into World War Two, though that does affect things to a significant degree, but mostly because events overtake Vivian’s ability to respond maturely or with emotional levelheadedness and she, along with others, suffers the effects of the resulting poor judgement she exercises.

Elizabeth Gilbert (image by Erik Charlton from Menlo Park, USA via Wikipedia)

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s hands, this journey from ill-advised and ill-judged nineteen-year-old to the ninety-year-old woman who recounts the story to the daughter of a very close friend is a mesmerisingly affecting one.

City of Girls is the work of a master storyteller who infuses her larger-than-life tale – for all its authenticity and grounded humanity, there’s a captivating bigger-than-ordinary quality to the narrative which speaks to how this hedonistic new chapter of her life feels to Vivian and how it dwarfs her life experience to date – with real, earthy honesty and a self-deprecating wit which ameliorates some intense situations with some judiciously-placed black humour.

Key to the glorious readability of this exemplary novel is the richness and vivacity that Gilbert brings to her characters, particularly Vivian as the younger ingénue and the far more worldly, mature and knowing older narrator who feel so real it is well nigh impossible not to feel like you are reading the recounting of the lives of real people.

The dialogues sparkles and leaps off the page, the banter coursing back and forth between characters like a great Hepburn-Tracy verbal duel that delights with witticisms, deliciously barbed and funny wordplay and a self-awareness that suggests people who know their lifestyle can’t survive forever and who are aware there will be consequences but are happy to live their lives in the moment come what may.

So zestfully alive and immersively feisty are the exchanges between various characters that whether the conversation is witty and ribald or seriously introspective and all too aware of the heaviness of life’s darker, less fun-filled moments, you are utterly and absolutely engrossed, in love with the characters, their vivaciously large lives and the attendant humanity that grounds them with feet of clay they don’t want but of which they are nonetheless in possession.

“Maybe you remember, Angela, what a powerful impact the word ‘fuck’ used to have in our society—back before everybody and their children started saying it ten times a day before breakfast. Indeed, it was once a very potent word. To hear it coming out of a respectable woman’s mouth? This was never done. Not even Celia used that word. Billy didn’t even use that word. (I used, of course, but only in the privacy of Anthony’s brother’s bed, and only because Anthony made me say it before he would have sex with me—and I still blushed whenever I spoke it.)
But to hear it shouted?” (P. 205)

The stroke of genius in the highly-readable master work that is City of Girls is that it understands that for all the larger-than-life aspects to the story and they are considerable, that this is a story of one woman and the very real people who made her life the rich and fulfilling it became.

Set against the great changes of the twentieth century, Vivian’s journey from innocent abroad to sage and learned older woman with more than a little life experience under her belt, feel palpably real and truthful all the way through even as it takes in a broad sweep of massive changes to the grand story of collective humanity.

The pleasure in reading City of Girls comes too from the richness of the language which is beautiful, poetic, feisty and fun, tortured and painful and yet always nothing less than transcendentally wonderful.

Gilbert’s novel is the perfect marriage of towering story, vivaciously, fully-realised characters, sparkling prose and intelligence, emotion and accessibility, proof that it is possible to write a novel that says a great deal, and in impressive fashion too about who we are, without once losing that connection to the very humanity it champions and celebrates.

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