Elizabeth Gilbert creates an enchanting story of one woman’s turbulent and rebellious life, starting just prior to World War II. Vivian Morris is a good girl from a well-to-do family in a small, upstate New York town. Well, when she’s not getting kicked out of college, she’s a good girl. Her folks agree to send her to New York City, where she stays with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a theater there, but it’s a pretty low-end place. And it’s here that Vivian acquires her true education in life.
Gilbert structures the book as a letter from the now elderly Vivian to a younger woman, Angela. It takes some time to unravel their relationship, but it’s not as important as the story Vivian tells about her life. The semi-epistolary format is creative, and gives City of Girls a more intimate feel.
Fully the first half takes place in the context of Aunt Peg’s theater, The Lily. It’s a raucous place and time, and Vivian drinks it all in. She finds a place for herself easily, given her talent as a seamstress. Theaters always need costumes, after all. And the troupe is varied, from showgirls to the stodgy Olive, who manages everything in Peg’s life. The unique nature of this world gives Gilbert plenty of story line and character development to work with.
But life takes the inevitable turn for the worse, and Vivian gets caught up in a scandal. How she copes with the situation, in that straightlaced time, is the next part of the story. Vivian is simply burnished by the fire she’s caught in. Her personality becomes more of her own, and she develops admirable traits.
Gilbert’s Vivian is a character I’d read more about, if I could. I loved her spunk and modern thinking approach. Of course, she was decades ahead of the trends, but that’s part of her charm. By the time the 1960s arrive, she fits right in despite her years of experience. At the same time, she’s deeply honest about her shortcomings. For example, she says:
“I was so unformulated as a human being, so unsteady in myself, that I was constantly grasping for attachment to another person—constantly anchoring myself to someone else’s allure.” (pg. 194)
I will say that most aspects of the story line weren’t especially surprising. Gilbert doesn’t throw big curveballs at her audience. But that didn’t diminish the story’s charm for me. It hits so many meaningful themes, including forgiveness, finding yourself, and making a family from friends.
In truth, she had me at the descriptions of Vivian’s Grandmother Morris, which happen quite early on. This minor character is so much like my own grandmother, as Vivian is, in fact, that I was gobsmacked. So perhaps I’m biased, but this is a book I envision re-reading in the future. And I don’t often do that.
The way Gilbert deals with female sexuality is to make it straightforward and free of that tittering, hide your laugh behind your hands feeling. It’s just what it is, rather than being presented as a controversy. At the same time, don’t imagine that the sexual decisions the characters make are all socially acceptable in their times. Some are very much on the edge of the propriety. Nonetheless, the message is “people have sex and it’s all quite normal.” I can stand behind that. And Gilbert puts it out there with the perfect balance of delicacy and strength.
Let’s just say Gilbert’s writing is like butter. It’s well-rendered and polished. She has an utterly fantastic way with words. All of the times she uses unique descriptive language make perfect sense to me. In the moments she uses a simile in her description, I think to myself, “Oh, I see what you’re doing there. And I can envision that image. It sings in my mind’s eye.” Here’s one that made me smile:
“Anyway, I arrived in New York City safely—a girl so freshly hatched that there was practically yolk in my hair.” (p. 13)
There was never a moment where I thought the story, characters, or writing itself were forced into place. They flow from sentence to sentence, and it makes the book a pleasure to read. I definitely recommend if you like historical fiction with a ton of heart.