I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s work. Eat, Pray, Love came into my life at a very precise time of need and soothed and supported me in ways I didn’t think was possible from a book. Committed opened my eyes to facets of marriage and the history of matrimony that I didn’t know I didn’t know. And while I hadn’t read her fiction, I loved listening to her thoughts about writing and creativity.
All this is to say that I was primed to love her latest novel, City of Girls.
That said, I knew very little about City of Girls when I hit play on the audiobook (side note: narrator Blair Brown, who you might recognize from the criminally underrated series Fringe, is a delight to have in your ears for fifteen hours). What unfolded was a dazzling tour of New York’s glittering old theater world and an appropriately colorful cast to match, which took me roughly thirteen hours to make sense of.
The story is framed as a lengthy and revealing (in more than one way) letter from elderly Vivian to Angela, whose identity remains a mystery for much of the book except as the one who asked about Vivian’s attachment to her deceased father, Frank. Vivian complies, in a sense—she cannot answer the question of what she meant to Frank, she says, but she can tell Angela what Frank meant to her. But it will take thirteen hours or so to get there, and first Vivian describes in great detail the preceding seventy years or so.
The bulk of the book, then, is about nineteen-year-old Vivian’s adventures and exploits in 1940s New York City, where she came as a college dropout to stay with her flamboyant Aunt Peg and was subsequently swept up into the theatrical world Peg offered. Vivian finds her skill with a sewing machine an invaluable skill for costuming. She makes friends with the showgirls, who encourage her to ditch her virginity as quickly as possible and hit the streets like the liberated young women they are. As the war looms, Britain-born theater star Edna arrives to charm Vivian with her cosmopolitan glamor and Peg launches the titular play to show off Edna’s abilities on the stage. But at the dizzying height of Vivian’s new city life, a drunken mistake brings it all crashing down. She returns to her suburban childhood home to lick her wounds until Peg recruits her to help with the war effort, and she returns humbled and wiser.
Some years after that is when we learn the reason for the whole letter, the whole story, And at that point, much of the narrative snaps into focus, but not quite all. And despite Vivian’s repeated narrative claims that she was only trying to provide Angela with the full story, I never quite understood why Vivian had to go into quite so much detail about every aspect of her life, up to and including losing her virginity.
Gilbert’s writing is perhaps more magical than I’ve seen it before—the product, perhaps, of her having the creative license that comes with fiction. Her descriptions gives a rich sense of escapism into the time and place that envelopes you with every page. This is a big book with big characters swimming in prose as rich as the red of the theater’s curtains, but sometimes it does feel like Gilbert knows that and waxes a little indulgent in it.
The framing device is interesting, but as I mentioned, it took most of the book before I understood the point of it. Were I Angela, I think I would have flipped through the hundreds of pages such a letter would take to get the answer without having to delve into every detail of this woman’s life. And again, the details are perfect for a literary novel but very strange for a letter; even as an accidental “memoir,” the level and selection of detail feel odd. Vivian’s disastrous mistake, too, feels somewhat anachronistic. Gilbert goes to great lengths to show us how Vivian essentially breaks down the barriers programmed into her from birth and the emotional circumstances surrounding the night in question, yet the deviation from her upbringing represented by that choice still feels so out of character for Vivian and the era.
Don’t mistake me: I absolutely believe this sort of thing went on in some circles in the 1940s and in “polite society,” but I don’t think even young, dumb Vivian would be quite so dumb or liberated to engage in it. Vivian’s utter self-centeredness, too, quickly wore thin, and didn’t much improve even as Vivian herself aged and matured.
So it feels long and it feels cringey and it feels unrealistic at times, and I probably would have lost patience with it had I not been trying to cross this off the list and had Blair Brown’s voice not infected itself into my subconscious. But when I finally did reach that point where things snapped into focus, when we finally met Frank, my feelings toward City of Girls softened. The poignancy of the ending was enough to undo many of the sins committed at times earlier in the book—not all of them, but many. And I finished it almost a week ago now and it’s still been lingering with me. What Frank and Vivian meant to each other is something tender and sweet, especially in light of all that came before. But his past that makes that relationship so sweet is told in bits of narration and supposition. Vivian’s is far less serious and utterly self-inflicted but given far more time to unspool.
I don’t know if I can recommend City of Girls, or to what extent. Because the writing was lovely and the story has stayed with me. It was time traveling at its finest and most decadent with descriptions that feel ridiculously well researched. I now have the most wicked new insult that I cannot wait to use to destroy the next person who crosses me. Frank as a broken and healing character feels so real that I wanted to hug him at every turn. But it took so long for us to get there and I couldn’t fully buy the reason for the telling of such a story.
One of the slow-simmering themes of City of Girls is Vivian’s realization that she doesn’t have to be a good girl to be a good person. In some ways, that applies to my feelings about City of Girls, too. Maybe its indulgence and half-hearted adherence to its own framing device means that it’s not a good book, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good story.