By Elizabeth Gilbert, A lively and spirited but long-winded coming-of-age story
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert came out earlier this month with a big splashy release.
I read her huge bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love a long, long, long time ago. I think I remember enjoying most of it, but honestly it’s been so long I really don’t remember.
You can read my notes on Eat, Pray, Love if you’d like, but I jotted those down back before this was a book blog. Back then, I blogged mostly for my friends to read, so it reads more like random musings than a book review.
Anyway, point is, I wasn’t sure what to expect going into City of Girls. I’d heard both good things and bad, but I was curious enough to give it a shot.
Vivian, looking back on her life, describes her experiences moving to New York as a wide-eyed nineteen-year-old in the 1940’s. City of Girls is about her adventures there as she becomes a costume director at her Aunt Peg’s theater, the Lily Plahouse.
Vivian is drawn into the glamour and excitement of stage life, but finds herself caught up in its excesses as well. When Vivian finds herself in a sticky situation, she’s forced to grow up and gain some perspective on her life.
See City of Girls on Amazon.
In the opening pages, Vivian drops out of Vassar because she never attended any of the classes and ended up being ranked second to last in the whole class. As a parenthetical aside, she mentions that the only student who did worse had contracted polio. I laughed at that.
City of Girls is a coming of age story about a spoiled, vacuous and beautiful young girl living in New York. She’s mostly good at sewing and sex. As an older woman looking back, Vivian realizes her flaws. She proceeds to tell her story about the excitement and diversions of theater life, but also considers her mistakes and shortcomings.
Gilbert does an impressive job of suffusing the first half of the book with the spirit and energy of that time period and that place. You can hear heels clacking on the floors of the vaudevillian playhouse as they prepare for a show and the champagne bottles popping in the clubs afterward.
The first half of the book is snappy and joyous, but largely superficial, lacking much personal growth for Vivian. Then, 250+ pages into the story, Vivian finally finds herself in a messy situation that challenges her and forces to take a hard look on her life. This marks a clear turning point in the novel, and the second half of the book becomes more cautious and somber. The book starts having more to say at this point, though much of the energy and the fun of the book also dissipates somewhat as well.
There are many instances when the book is exactly the type of book it endeavors to be. In these moments, it charming and witty and sometimes funny or surprising. The dialogue sparkles and the characters brim with effervescence.
The problem is, these moments are draped against large swaths of text that where the book drags on. There’s so much atmosphere in this book, but I couldn’t help feeling again and again like I’d gotten the gist of what was going on and was ready to move on.
I hate saying this because it feels like such a hack-y criticism, but this book is just too long. Or I should say, it’s about a few hundred pages longer than it really needs to be. The book saves most of its wisdom for the very end, but I wouldn’t blame some readers if they’d given up by then.
Without giving anything away, Vivian does eventually gain some perspective and find personal growth in her story. The last few chapters feel a little tacked on, but it’s also where Gilbert processes Vivian’s story and reflects what Vivian learns from her experiences.
I don’t know if I entirely agree with some of Gilbert’s conclusions about people or life, but they’re some things to think about.
What’s up with this book premise?
One quick aside. The whole conceit of this novel strains credulity just a little bit. On page two, you find out this book is supposedly written in response to an inquiry from a younger woman, Angela. Angela wants to know what the deal was with Vivian’s relationship with her father.
But come on, am I supposed to believe any sane person answers a letter with a 500-page response? As the pages go by and Vivian starts to provide extensive details on her sexual exploits (why would she subject someone to this in a letter about their dad?), it’s clear that not even the author takes her premise very seriously.
I mean it’s not a huge deal, but at some point it seems a little silly.
Read it or Skip it?
After reading it, the very mixed reviews I’ve been reading make a lot more sense. This book has high points and low points. If you have the patience for it, the story is fun, spirited and takes you on a complete emotional journey.
At the same time, it tested my patience in parts, and sometimes the book seemed too laser-focused on Vivian’s coming to terms with her sexuality. I mean I get that’s what this book is about, but there were so many other types of women and social issues and women finding their place in the workforce and the whole war thing going on. In 500 pages, you’d think Gilbert would have found room to tackle a few other things as well, even if perfunctorily.
As I was reading, I was reminded of parts of Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert seems to be saying some of the same things in City of Girls.
The main point that the book is adamant about is that it’s okay for women to live unconventionally and to have sex (and a lot of it, if they wish). Which it is. The thing is though, the whole Sex and the City thing was revolutionary…in the early 2000s. Similarly, Eat Pray Love came out in 2006. I’m just not sure this message feels as impactful nearly 15 years later.
I can easily imagine people who will enjoy this book for its sense of atmosphere and fun and the satisfying emotional journey of it. That said, I can also easily imagine people who will feel impatient reading it and will find the focus on Vivian’s exploits tiresome. So, I guess it just depends on what you’re looking for.
What do you think? Have you read this or would you consider reading it? See City of Girls on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
PrologueIn April 2010, Vivian gets a letter from Angela, whose mother has recently passed away. Angela wants to know what Vivian's relationship with her (Angela's) father was. (The book is written as a response to Angela's inquiry.) Chapters 1 - 4 In summer of 1940, Vivian is 19. She has recently dropped out of Vassar, having gotten dismal grades. She's moving to New York to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a theater company. Aunt Peg is technically married to a Hollywood screenwriter, Billy Buell, but they've been separated for a long time. Her parents are well-off and her brother is off at Princeton studying engineering. Her father owns a hematite mine. She had been close to her Grandmother Morris, who taught her to sew which she loves, but her grandmother passed away just before she started school. It occurs to her as she's writing that the death is perhaps why she did so badly at Vassar. In New York, Vivian is picked up by Aunt Peg's secretary, Olive Thompson. They go to Lily Playhouse, Peg's theater where she lives as well. The Lily Playhouse is not serious theater, but rather entertainment bordering on being vaudevillian. Peg is the creative mind and Olive makes sure it doesn't run out of money. Meanwhile, Mr. Donald Herbert serves as the writer, and Benjamin Wilson is the songwriter-slash-piano man. Very quickly, Vivian gets lost in the world of fun, glamour, and mayhem. Vivian meets Gladys and Celia Ray, who are beautiful showgirls. When the girls find out Vivian can sew, they are delighted and want her to make costumes. She effectively becomes the playhouse's costume director. Vivian stays in Billy's room, since he hasn't been around in four years. When Celia needs a place to stay too, Vivian offers to let her stay with her without asking anyone. Reflecting back, Vivian realizes she was spoiled and self-involved. Chapters 5 - 9 Celia grew up in the Bronx and was thrown out when she got pregnant from an older man. After the abortion, she became a dancer, moved to Hollywood, and eventually came back and became a showgirl. he's beautiful and glamorous and Vivian is in awe of her. When the showgirls find out Vivian is a virgin, they encourage her to lose it. Celia thinks Dr. Harold Kellogg, a married man who often pays the girls for sex, would be the right guy for the job. She has (bad) sex with him and he gives her fifty dollars. After that, Celia and Vivian party even harder, hitting clubs and picking up men. They have fun and men fall all other themselves for them. Except when they don't. Vivian describes a night when Celia and she ended up with some men, and Celia something's wrong and sends Vivian out of the room. Celia comes out later with a black eye and they go home. Around this time, the Germans march on Paris, though Vivian isn't paying much attention, and Edna and Arthur Watson, two well-known actors, move into the playhouse. They were visiting New York when a bomb destroyed their house in London. Edna is a Shakespearean stage actress who is warm and friendly, and she's old friends with Olive and and Peg. Vivian finds Edna wonderful immediately. She decides she wants to dress like Edna, and they talk about costume design. She finds herself wanting to spend more time with Edna instead of going out with Celia for the first time in months. Chapters 10 - 15 They start working on a new, classier show so Edna can star in it. It's called City of Girls, and is about a woman who transforms her house into a casino. Peg considers asking Billy for help, and instantly everyone else begs her not to. Mr. Herbert is stressed out about having to write a higher quality show. Billy shows up one morning -- he's back. He's bold and brash and a playboy. Peg is still very fond of Billy, though Olive is wary of him and thinks he's not trustworthy. Billy quickly writes the script for the show, and it's good. However, he tries to talk Peg into hiring extra dancers for the show, and he encourages her to go out and drink and live excessively. As they're casting the show, Vivian meets Anthony Roccella who's there to audition and falls for him. He's arrogant, and has a "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude when it comes to Vivian. He's cast as the male lead. He teaches Vivian about sex, dirty talk and oral sex. She no longer has interest in going out with Celia. She's infatuated with Anthony, and her work at the playhouse suffers for it. Edna warns her to be careful not to ruin the show over this because her Aunt has poured all her money into this production. The show is shaping up and Peg is getting stressed out about it. Peg and Olive get in a fight, and when they make up Vivian sees them holding each other. She realizes they are a couple and perhaps it's why Olive and Billy don't get along. Chapters 16 - 21 The show opens, and it's a hit. The reviews are good, especially for Edna and everyone is thrilled. Edna is becoming a star. Then, Walter, her brother, shows ups, telling her he's dropped out of Princeton, and he's joining the navy. He's training here in New York. Walter meets Anthony and doesn't like him. He encourages her to be smart and end things. Edna and Anthony are invited to a war benefit. Arthur, Edna's husband, is miffed at them going. He implies to Vivian than Anthony and Edna are sleeping together. Vivian is upset. They go out drinking with Celia's newest friends, Brenda Frazier and Shipwreck Kelly, a briefly famous socialite couple. Soon, Celia reveals that she's sleeping with Arthur. Drunk and upset, Vivian finds herself kissing them outside and then at a hotel in a threesome with Celia and Arthur. The next day, Stan Weinberg, a newspaperman, lets them know he has photos of the encounter and that he's going to publish an expose. Olive takes Vivian to see Walter Winchell, the newspaper publisher. She asks him not to publish Vivian's name. He refuses, but when the newspaper comes out, Vivian is not named. Peg fires Celia. Anthony says he's done with Vivian and doesn't want to see her. Peg tells Vivian that Edna was never sleeping with Anthony. Vivian tries explain to Edna, but Edna tells her she's an insignificant and uninteresting person. Vivian calls her brother crying, asking to be taken home and tells him what happened. Walter arranges a car to take them home, quickly, but scolds her on the way home. The driver sympathizes with Walter, saying it's a pity he ended up with a sister that's a "dirty little whore". Walter drops her off at home without telling their parents what happened. Chapters 22 - 27 Back at home, Vivian dis-spiritledly gets a job at her father's office. Arthur and Edna are still married. Looking back, Vivian can see the double standard where Arthur, a man, is easily forgiven while she and Celia, the "dirty little whores," have been disposed of. Vivian meets a man, Jim Lawson, at her father's office. They date and get engaged. He is respectable and boring. When he refers to her as a virgin, she reveals that she's not but is too ashamed to tell him the full truth. She lets him believe someone violated her previously. Pearl Harbor happens, and Jim enlists. He suggests cancelling their engagement, though most couples in this situation would hurry up to get married. When she agrees, he looks relieved. As they embrace to say goodbye, they end up having sex. Vivian finds herself turning to sewing again and starts feeling like herself again. Peg shows up for a visit, and asks Vivian to return to handle costuming on a commission from the Navy. Vivian decides to go. Peg tells her that Billy, who wrote and directed City of Girls, packed up the show and took it to a larger theater. Edna's doing Shakespeare again. Vivian thinks Peg should be mad, but Peg shrugs it off, saying that's just how Billy is. In New York again with the war raging on, Vivian does her job and learns to be alone. She gets a bicycle. She sees Anthony, but doesn't say hi. She sees Edna as well, but Edna pretends not to know her. Walter dies in war from a kamikaze attack. Vivian mourns for him. By the time the war is over, Vivian is 24 years old. With the war over, the Navy Yard no longer needs them to provide entertainment. Her closest friend is Marjorie Lowtsky, whose parents own the thrift store that Vivian has always gotten clothes from. Marjorie proposes that they go into making custom-made wedding gowns. The business is a success. Vivian is good at identifying how to flatter the women's figures. She feels fulfilled by her work. Vivian gets involved with men now but not really attached. She and Marjorie are both unmarried, but feel free to be happy and themselves. Chapters 28 - 29 In 1955, Marjorie gets pregnant. The father is a married man, George, an anti-Semitic art professor (Marjorie is Jewish). She decides she's going to keep the baby. Vivian agrees to help her raise it. The baby is named Nathan. He was sweet, but always sick and fragile. They have to work extra hard to support and take care of the baby. But they love that kid. In 1964, Billy dies. Soon after, her father dies. By that time, her father had lost the mine and most of his fortune due to waging losing legal battles with unions. One night, Vivian catches a glimpse of Celia Ray on television. She's middle-aged and thick-set, but it's her on a floor wax television ad. Vivian is happy for her, though since it seems to indicate Celia ended up being okay. In 1965, the Navy Yard reaches out to Peg to plan a commemorative show since they are closing down permanently. They'll need skits and costumes. Peg's health is failing, so Vivian produces the show instead. After the show, a man comes up to her, saying that he served with Walter on the Franklin, the ship Walter died on. His name is Frank Grecco. He awkwardly tells her that they've met before. He was the driver that had driven her home with Walter and referred her as a dirty little whore. He insists that he needs to talk to her, but Vivian feels anger and walks away. (Narrating to Angela, Vivian explains that this was how she met her father.) Vivian is upset by the encounter and turns to Peg to tell her what happened. Peg is unsympathetic. Peg notes that the man is a veteran implies that he's probably had a harder life than she's had. Olive comes in and Vivian explains to her as well, but she's also unsympathetic. Peg says that she's disappointed in her for walking away from someone who knew and served with her brother. Olive tells her that "the field of honor is a painful field" and gives her a lecture about it. She's basically saying that is Vivian wants to be a person of character, sometimes it means being in uncomfortable and painful situations. Vivian wants to run away and hide, but she knows that being adult means meeting this head on. She needs to fight for herself or forgive if needed -- but not just run away. Vivian tracks Frank down and they meet. He apologizes for what he'd said about her many years ago. He explains that he was trying to impress Walter. He goes on and on and explains how bad he felt. He's blubbering along, and Vivian thinks that it reminds her of when she was trying to apologize to Edna. Vivian accepts his apology. She puts her arm on his and he flinches. He points to his burn scars and explains that he can't be touched because it hurts. Chapters 30 - 33 Frank is claustrophobic and anxious from his war injuries, but Vivian falls in love with him. Vivian explains to Angela that Frank was distant from Angela because he didn't want to damage her with his issues. He had a lot of academic promise when he was younger, but due to his trauma had a hard time taking certain types of jobs. He ends up as a patrolman because it gives him space to walk around. Vivian has never met Angela's mother, Rosella. Rosella and Frank married just before the war and Angela was born. After the war, Frank couldn't be touched so they couldn't have any more kids. Rosella was always working and so was he. He respected her, but the ended up living separate lives. Frank and Vivian end up having a close friendship where he would call her at night and they'd take walks around the city. The never slept together or considered marriage or anything (Frank was still married to Rosella). One day Frank is upset because he ran into someone who he served with. The guy tells him he's soft, and Frank is ashamed. On the Franklin, Frank dove off the boat when it was attacked, whereas others stayed. Frank says he's a coward, however, Vivian tells him that it doesn't matter. Some people just are the way they are and there's nothing to be done about it. It doesn't make him a bad person. Aunt Peg passes away from emphysema. Vivian quits smoking because of it. In 1971, Frank asks Vivian to make Angela a wedding dress. Vivian and Angela meet, though Angela is curious about Vivian's relationship with Frank since he doesn't have any friends that she knows of. The book ends with Vivian telling Angela that this is the full story and she can judge her however she likes. She says she'd like to be friends if Angela is interested.
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