Blurb (as on Goodreads):
Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.
Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.
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 a 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 powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.
Viviene Morris has certain goals in life- to defy the normal and to invite trouble. After being sent home from college for failing in all her subjects, Vee is shipped off to New York by her wealthy parents. She is to live with Aunt Peg, who owns a theatre (if you could call it that) in New York.
As Vee enters the glitz and glam of the theatre world, she finds herself drawn to the glittery costumes, elegant artists and the kind of high one gets while living in a city with no restrictions whatsoever.
“What did I want to do with myself? I wanted to do this! I wanted to drink martinis with showgirls, and listen to Broadway business talk, and eavesdrop on the gossip of boys who looked like girls! I wanted to hear about people’s big sex lives!”
Vee isn’t scared of anything, and when she meets Celia Ray she finds a confidante and a partner in crime. Thus starts a life that includes costume design (because that’s the only talent Vee has), sleeping with men and waking up with a filthy hangover. And then the plot shifts towards ‘City of Girls’- a play that defined the fate of all the people in Lily’s Playhouse. ‘City of Girls’ is also Vee’s wake-up call, and she takes it seriously, but not so much.
‘City of Girls’-the novel, is Vee’s letter to Angela who wants to know the truth behind the suspicious and out-of-the-blue friendship between her father and Vee. And given the spontaneous person, Vee is, she delves into a description that exposes her heart, mind, and soul.
Vee, as a protagonist is nothing but annoying, While she knows her worth, she won’t think twice before making dangerous bargains and devastating choices. But what can we expect of a teenager who is free spirited and loves inviting danger? But her character arc shows a notable change and we see a woman who has redeemed herself, if not her nature but her actions and it is refreshing to watch a character live without regrets, even when most of her teenage mischiefs are morally wrong. Vee finds a family away from home and lives her life in her own terms.
‘City of Girls’ is also about New York- the pre-war and post-war New York and how the entertainment industry played an important role in Vee’s as well as the soldier’s lives, bringing them joy and hope when there was none.
“Never has it felt more important for me to tell stories of joy and abandon, passion and recklessness. Life is short and difficult, people. We must take our pleasures where we can find them. Let us not become so cautious that we forget to live.”
Gilbert’s writing will tell you that she never feeds you with partial information and in this book it’s the theatre that takes up most of the initial pages. The girls, the fun, the wilderness and the unapologetic glory of the theatre life has been described with precision (sometimes to the point of boredom), which also slows down the pace drastically. I enjoyed the story more after I was halfway through, but if you love details you will enjoy every bit of this. Mostly, I hated Vee’s character because she is the poster child of stupid and no matter how much I try, I couldn’t separate her from her younger, self-absorbed, narcissistic self.
Also, if you haven’t enjoyed Gilbert’s books before, you might not enjoy this because the writing style is very similar. For me, it’s safe to say that Gilbert is not for me and I have tried to review this book from a neutral POV.
Gorgeously messy, engrossing, witty and full of wisdom, ‘City of Girls’ is about growing up, finding love and connection in a strange city and amidst strange people and all that life teaches you, irrespective of your desire to learn.
*Thank you Bloomsbury India for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own*