Elizabeth Gilbert’s new period novel goes down like a glass of perfectly chilled champagne. It’s the perfect summer beach read.
City of Girls was written by Elizabeth Gilbert and narrated by Blair Brown.
Gilbert has been honest with us all from the beginning: This book should read like a champagne cocktail. It delivers on the promise– but the story isn’t one you gently sip. It’s the kind of champagne cocktail you want to throw back in three deep gulps, one that leaves your head swimming, one that leaves you wanting the next glass.
Content & Storytelling
The City of Girls story is a letter from 89-year-old Vivian Morris to a mysterious person: Angela. Angela wrote Vivian to ask for an explanation of Vivian’s relationship with Angela’s father. Then and there, readers the world over are hooked.
The format of the letter is an interesting choice for Gilbert, allowing her as the writer to fog out the perspectives of other characters in favor of the first-person voice while applying well-timed and insightful threads of hindsight. As the reader, you feel both limited by Vivian’s young innocence and naivety and at the same time, enlightened and empowered by the decades that now separate her from the roots of the story.
Vivian starts by taking you back, to the days in which she was freshly invited to leave Vassar, cast out by her affluent parents in Clinton, NY to her Aunt Peg in New York City and the vibrant life of The Lily Playhouse. Viv falls into lockstep with resident knockout and star of her aunt’s feel-good stage productions, Celia. Vivian’s love of fashion and garment construction carries her through the doors of the playhouse and gives her the first real glimpse of worth and purpose she has in life. She steps into the role of Costume Director with enthusiasm.
The girls proceed to tear through 1940 Manhattan. They drink to excess and sleep with any (and every) man they please and have a blatant– almost flippant– disregard for the consequences. World War II steps in, stranding the bright, shining star of Edna Parker Watson at the Lily Playhouse, along with her simple, handsome movie-actor husband, Arthur Watson. A new play is written and cast, with the help of Aunt Peg’s estranged husband, Billy, and Vivian falls hard and fast for the leading man cast opposite Edna, a Brooklynite named Anthony who has neither Vivian’s social standing nor her “good breeding.” She has a lot of fun with him.
City of Girls debuts to rave reviews city-wide. As the stars rise for Vivian’s ensemble cast, her relationship with Anthony becomes more strained. Viv tries to polish him up, making the mistake that 20-year-old women the world over make every day: assuming she is going to marry her first serious boyfriend. Things come to a catastrophic head when Arthur Watson speaks to the heart of Vivian’s insecurity about her boyfriend, and she finds herself drunk and drawn into a menage-a-trois with Celia and Arthur. Vivian’s life unravels from there, with several searing condemnations from Edna Parker Watson. Vivian calls her brother and begs him to take her home, to her parents upstate. It reads and feels like a big defeat for a character that is enthralling if not wholly likable. (Nobody is likable at 19-20 years old; it’s the vapidest and narcissistic phase of life.)
Honestly, the only thing I wished for in the whole story was for a bigger transgression than a mere dalliance with her best friend and a costar’s husband before Vivian’s fall from grace. I suppose that’s the point. Gilbert herself has been a vocal advocate of the idea that women face a terrible double standard when it comes to punishment. What seems by modern standards (especially in the context of this novel, as these young women get into much more interesting trouble through the course of the narrative) to be a single bad decision ends up ricocheting the whole of Vivian’s future. It seemed so small. And to be honest, it reinforces the theme that it doesn’t take much to derail the lives of women when it comes to moral or sexual transgressions.
The book quietly presents to the readers the themes of gender discrimination, and the way they’re socialized differently. But it also flirts– a bit naively, but that’s simply a limitation of the narrator’s perspective– with the limitations and punishments of class. Vivian is wealthy, and when she falls from grace, she lands softly on the cushion of her genteel family. Celia doesn’t have a golden parachute, and she’s wiped from the narrative– literally, making only the smallest appearance later in life, as an aged mother in a commercial.
When Vivian is called back to New York City at the behest of Aunt Peg, World War II is a much larger factor in the plot. Vivian sees for the first time in her life what it means to be financially independent, to earn her own keep. What wartime rations mean, and how resourcefulness is perhaps the most valuable trait she can possess. She transitions into bridalwear after the war ends, and never marries, never “settles down” in the traditional sense. She matures as a character in a really satisfying way, and I feel sorry for the readers out there who gave up on the book before letting Vivian grow up.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, on who Angela’s father is and what Vivian’s relationship to him was. Trust me, the reveal is so gratifying that even if you’re like me, a consummate Googler of plot spoilers, you will enjoy the whole story more if you allow yourself to indulge in the who-done-it aspect of assessing every male lead as they parade into and out of the narrative. It is a huge contributing part of the fun of the story.
Length & Pacing
There have been some criticisms written about the book’s length, that it’s about 100 pages too long. I’m here to tell you that the audio version of this book moves right along, with the only part of the story that gives itself time to catch its breath being the introduction and Vivian’s brief respite to Upstate New York after the incident. Once Vivian lets her feet hit the asphalt in New York City, you are in for a wild ride. And in the capable, dynamic hands of the talented Blair Brown, the clip of the plot sweeps you in.
Narration & Writing
Part of the magic of the story– especially the audio version of this novel– is that Blair Brown perfectly balances the perspective of an aged narrator looking back with the tenacity and vivacity of Vivian’s 19-year-old energy.
Brown breathes life into the language of the audiobook that’s hard to find on the print page. She brings Vivian to life in the subtleties of her tone, the shift in her breath as she imbues the words of the story with wonder and impatience and humor. In a book that’s already easy to read, Brown finds the heart of Vivian and tells her story from what feels like an honest and emotional center, a place of candor, both about how wonderful it all was and about how small and naive she had been.
For Gilbert’s part, the writing evokes the early essays of Nora Ephron in her language channeling the love for and the energy of New York City. The dialogue is snappy, authentic, and rings true to the periods in which the stories are set. The book was not written to challenge; it was written to titillate. And Gilbert manages to accomplish both– the reading of the book and the hungry consumption of the story is exhilirating. But it leaves you with hanging questions, ones that you can’t back away from easily. And it’s not common in today’s literature to leave that aftertaste of moral curiosity without also feeling like you’ve been hit with a hammer. It’s a refreshing approach to a moral narrative, superbly executed by both the writer and the narrator.
We love this book. We devoured it and then moved it immediately back to the top of our Must Re-Read pile. We’re also tossing it into our beach bag, and recommending it to all our most fun and most serious and most beloved friends, because it offers something for every reader, from the most intellectual to the most free-spirited. Highly recommend. Pairs nicely with a chilled, lightly sweet sparkling white wine.
Official Book Description: 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 eighty-nine 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.