City of Girls
“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 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.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
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HB&W Rating: 2 stars
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Feminism
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Well, I think this is going to be a love it or hate it for most people. I think I fall somewhere toward the latter on this one, unfortunately. I feel kind of bad about that considering that my guest host for book club this quarter (see below) selected this book because she loved it so much.
The writing itself is great. The story is told in first person POV as a letter written by our aging protagonist. I really liked Vivian’s voice as a character and I also really liked the narrator of the audiobook, Blaire Brown (any Fringe fans out there?). She modeled the vivacity of a woman of that era well and did Vivian’s voice justice. I also laughed out loud at many parts, particularly Vivian’s deflowering, though some might find that scene cringey.
I appreciated how the author dove head-first into the topic of feminine sensuality and promiscuity, especially prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and I actually liked the overall message that you don’t have to be a “good girl” to be a good person (despite what society, even today, would tell you). But while this is touted as a “love story like no other” this is mostly referring to the infatuation the main character has with herself. I’m not trying to trivialize the necessity of a woman to appreciate her own self-worth, but Vivian’s version of this is shallow and insipid. While she does eventually find love, those scenes were lacking in substance and underdone in the overall scope of the book.
Ultimately, for a character-driven book, I expected more character development. True to the prediction of Edna Parker Watson, Vivian never became interesting to me. She starts off as a spoiled, entitled, little rich girl naively throwing herself into things she knew nothing about. She starts the book at age 19, but she acted like she was 15 instead of 19. Feasibly, this was likely a result of her secluded and entitled upbringing, and that was the author’s intent all along, but I felt alienated from Vivian and her thoughtlessness.
We are told plenty of how grown up Vivvie became in the last third of the book, but after dedicating two-thirds of the book to the idiot she was as a youth, we don’t actually see much more than glimpses at the things that would have made her more interesting. We don’t see her really learn anything or grow as a person. She made some colossal mistakes but just skates right on by, sheltered by the adults around her. I get that the author wanted to write a story about a woman being promiscuous without any consequences (she said exactly that about this book), a way to give women permission to be promiscuous if they want, I suppose, but it didn’t sit right with me. There are ALWAYS consequences to our actions. Sure, she feels terrible about what she did, the people she hurt, but she learned little about thinking before she acts.
Still, I kept rooting for her, hoping to see more substance from the things that would make her more interesting as a character, like her adult female friendships, her life as an unmarried adult businesswoman, more of her struggle to raise a child with her friend, the hardships she and her friend would have faced at that time. It was glossed over and left me feeling a bit cheated. The first two-thirds of the book were so richly colored in both setting and characters, that the last third was nothing but a disappointment. Characters we’d come to know essentially drop off of the face of the earth, new characters are introduced but not really developed, and Vivian flatlines in development.
Frankly, I think the sex stuff was overdone and could have been lessened to leave room for more of the other stuff. While I understand that 1) it would have made the book probably longer than most would want to read and 2) would have been harder to explain the need to include those things in a letter to Angela (and boy, didn’t she get more than she bargained for in response to her letter!), it would have made for a better book, in my opinion. But maybe that’s also what makes so many people fall in love with this book. I can certainly see what people would love about the story, it just wasn’t enough for me.
I have many more opinions on this book, but they’re spoilers, so you’ll have to join us on April 25th, as we discuss it live! Read on for details!
Book Club Details!
On Tuesday, April 25th at 7pm CST on Instagram Stories Live, I’ll be joined by book blanket sensation Taylor Tidwell of Bookstagram’s @whats.taylor.reading to get to know her and chat all things yarn and books, see her recent progress on her book blanket, and talk all about City of Girls.
Grab a WIP and something to sip and join us! I’m excited to chat with Taylor and I can’t wait to see what she and all of you have to say about this book!
@whats.taylor.reading – Taylor Tidwell
Taylor is a mother of 2 girls who has been an avid reader all her life. She joined Bookstagram, just like many, during the pandemic. She enjoys reading Romance, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction. She also enjoys crocheting which was set aside after having kids. Fast forward 3 years, Taylor had an epiphany about crocheting a book genre blanket like a temperature blanket with each row representing the genre of each book finished this year. The idea went viral and she’s inspired over 50 people, that she knows of, to make a book blanket or book related project!
Can’t make the live discussion? No problem! I’ll be posting the replay below when it is available after April 25th.
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