But as a reviewer says of a big production at the playhouse, “You cannot ask for a more entertaining spectacle than this — not in these dark times.” City of Girls has enough oomph and espièglerie, enough New York nostalgia, to keep this show on the road.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Vivian’s life doesn’t follow the narrative pattern expected of her. She doesn’t get what upper middle-class American girls of her generation are supposed to want: a college education swiftly followed by marriage and babies. But she gets something else. She gets adventure, and sexual pleasure, and creative fulfilment and friendship – and love that comes from various surprising places. The novel shows us that these things are worthwhile and beautiful in themselves, reminding us that there are lots of different ways for women to live, and to be.
One of the chief regrets of book-loving women of my age — and a surprising number of men — is that no one writes novels like Love in a Cold Climate and The Dud Avocado any more. I’m talking about the brand of romantic misadventure written with such wit, verve and emotional honesty that you feel you’ve washed down 100 life lessons within a vodka martini. Miraculously, Elizabeth Gilbert has managed to pull off exactly this feat with her high-kicking new novel City of Girls. It helps that she’s set the story in a shabby New York vaudeville theatre in the 1940s, thronging with bohemians, and everyone spouts one-liners straight out of Romcom Central.
Her last work of fiction, The Signature of All Things, was a historical novel about an independent young woman pioneering her way in the world of 19th-century botany, but it was also about articulating female desire in an age when well-bred girls did not have the language to do so. Now, in her third full-length novel, City of Girls, [Gilbert] puts that desire quite literally centre stage... Gilbert’s attention to period detail and idiom is just as sharp here as in her previous novel, and the dialogue reads like the script of a sassy screwball comedy. But for all its verve and sparkle, what appears to be a novel about sexual awakening turns out to be a warm and wise meditation on friendship, on the choices women make, and on the way that multifaceted relationships and sexuality are far from being modern phenomena.
It would be easy to dismiss City of Girls as joyous escapism, and God knows there’s little enough of that around right now. But look more closely and what you’ll see is an eloquently persuasive treatise on the judgment and punishment of women, and a heartfelt call to reclaim female sexual agency. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” says Vivian as she looks back on her life. “After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.” Let’s hope Gilbert is right.
I freaking adored this book. Its heroine, Vivian Morris, will absolutely steal your heart and probably do a good job of breaking it, too. Set in New York, mostly in the 1940s, it features showgirls and actresses and ingenues. Oh my!
As might be expected, the author of the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love has written a brave-hearted story of a woman’s sentimental education which is lashed with a salty wisdom and realism. ‘People have a certain nature, and that’s just how it goes’. If it doesn’t quite pack a defining emotional punch, it is gripping and enormous fun.
Coming-of-age stories which centre on female protagonists are still a relatively rare thing, and a celebrated treat. With City of Girls, Gilbert adds a valuable contribution to the genre – and shows that she’s as gifted a novelist, as she is a memoirist.
Elizabeth Gilbert is queen of the journey-of-self-discovery memoir, having penned the ludicrously successful 2006 Eat Pray Love (13 million copies sold worldwide, film adaptation starring Julia Roberts). If soul-searching isn’t your sort of thing though, don’t be put off by her third novel. City of Girls may also be an ode to self-love and self-discovery — through the haze of Forties New York rather than Noughties Bali — but it is a rollicking, beautifully rendered ride of glitter and fun... Gilbert has a knack for storytelling and her plot doesn’t so much twist as twirl, high-kicking all the way — which diverts from the irritating conceit that frames the story... This is a rambunctious anthem to living a life joyous and satisfyingly full — and that deserves an ovation.
Since the 2006 publication of her post-divorce memoir Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert has become something of a guru, instructing her legions of fans, via social media, speaking tours and non-fiction books, on how to live with joy, love and creativity. City of Girls, her third novel, has emerged from what Gilbert calls a “tough time”. In 2016 she left her husband (of Eat Pray Love fame — they met in Bali, she later wrote a book about marriage called Committed) because she had fallen in love with her best friend, Rayya Elias, who had been diagnosed with cancer; Elias died 2018. You would expect something dark to come from such cataclysmic events. Gilbert, however, says City of Girls is “the happiest, most cheerful, sexiest, most fun book that I’ve ever written”. This seems both hopeful and a bit odd... Indeed, at times there is almost a sense of the author, fingers in ears, crying “la-la-la I can’t hear you” at anything tricky. The passion, pain, sex, loss and sadness of Vivian’s long life are firmly told rather than felt, and consequently the dangerous moments feel quite comfy and the love feels a bit abstract... Gilbert’s second novel, The Signature of All Things, about a 19th-century botanist, was shortlisted for the 2014 Wellcome Prize, and her literary talents do sometimes shine through... City of Girls will be a hit. Many readers will adore its bolstering message of hope. Curmudgeons like me, who feel that fun may not be enough, could be less sold.