Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

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.

In a memoir-like letter of correspondence, an elderly Vivian Morris details her life story, in order to answer a question that she has been asked to answer.  Vivian begins telling her story from 1940, when at nineteen-years-old, she was sent to live with her Aunt in New York City, where her new home was her Aunt’s theatre; the Lily Playhouse.
Whilst there, Vivian’s eyes were opened to a brand-new world of showbiz and exuberant lifestyles filled with fashion, excitement and promiscuity. What transpires from here was a life of fun, desire, sorrow and shame that is ultimately an interesting life worth reading about.
City of Girls is a coming-of-age story across one woman’s lifespan filled with delight and grief, to make a wonderous and deeply emotional read.

You know when you’ve read a good book; when you close the boards having just finished the last page, and let out a sigh of contentment, joy and whatever else someone can feel. That’s what I had here.  This was truly a pleasure to read.  For me, this is one of those rare gems that is quite special.

This reads like a memoir; I felt like I was sitting down to hear my grandmother’s life story – and I simply couldn’t get enough.  The way this story is narrated, felt like I was being made privy to secrets, scandals and such sentiment that comes from a good storyteller.  I never wanted it to end.

As the book read like an endearing swansong, it was easy to connect with both the story and its narrator, Vivian.  The reader goes on her journeys of first love, questionable choices and influences, great successes and profound mistakes and regrets (to name a few).

Gosh, there was such heart-breaking moments in this. I really can’t express the poignancy Elizabeth Gilbert has captured, of someone looking retrospectively at their life. Vivian didn’t see what or where she was going wrong at 19, but with the benefit (and tragic beauty) of hindsight, she saw all of these faults in her old age.

In addition to Vivian, this has a colourful cast of characters.  Vain young girls, competent women, gentle women, untrustworthy and arrogant men, traumatised men, people heavily influenced by their social class. There’s more. These great and varied character made this story as enjoyable as it was.

The setting of New York in the 1940s was illustrated so vividly, it was hard not to be immersed in it.  I loved The Lily Playhouse, it almost felt as alive as the characters due to vibrancy and witness to all the on goings.
City of Girls is perfect for fans of theatre and musicals, as it takes the reader through the joys and perils of what being a showman or show woman, backstage crew etc., is all about.

I liked the message behind the angles of women and promiscuity, as the author herself confronts in her author’s introduction. However, toward the end of the story, I felt it became a little overkill, and I no longer felt like I had as much of a connection to Vivian as I did at one point. But I strongly admire the portrayal of a female character who is confident in herself that she didn’t need marriage or a man to define her or what a woman’s fulfilment and happiness can be.

Additionally, toward the end of the book, I felt some chapters were a way to try and showboat knowledge of WW2, particularly Frank’s chapter. It really dimmed the fun and the awe that had consistently been building across the novel for me.  Plus, with the amount of focus on WW2, it would have been interesting to have some focus on The Cold War too.

But most importantly, my favourite part of the overall story what the power of something can do to one’s life.
The power of change – be it through WW2, growing up, losses and success. The power of mistakes and guilt – the shame a person can feel.
The power of hindsight – the realisation that you were wrong, that you were right, or maybe someone else was/wasn’t.
The power of unpredictability – as life is rarely black and white.
The power of knowing oneself – because that’s one of the greatest and satisfying accomplishments one can achieve.
The extent of how all of these occurrences influence and shape a person was my favourite theme of this story.

Overall, I read this within three days and I’m rating it 5 stars.  Are you ever simply floored by a book you’ve read? Enjoyed it so much, and can explain why, but equally at the same time, can’t explain it too? That’s what’s happened here.  It feels like I’ve lived a full life in the space of a couple of days.  This is a charming story, and I recommend it without hesitation.  I think it’s an essential book in helping young ladies know their worth is what they define it, and that life is worth living to the fullest potential by whatever means bring us as much happiness as possible.  Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert, for sharing this story.


Buy It Now

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published June 2019
Genre: historical fiction


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