Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls

City of Girls landed top spot on my ‘to be read’ list on account of its front cover. That’s right, I based a book on its cover and I am so thankful that I did.

I adored this novel.

19-year-old Vivian Morris is banished to live with her aunt in New York after failing a semester at Vassar, the top college her privileged parents forced her to attend. Yes you read that right, ‘banished’. If anyone is willing to send me off to an avant-garde aunt who runs her own small theatre in the centre of New York actual City, then please, be my guest. Even Vivian herself notes: “exile in New York is no exile at all”, as she dives headlong into the decadent, potent, promiscuous pool of a lifestyle that all the other show girls of The Lily Playhouse are living.  

“When I was younger, I had wanted to be at the very center of all the action in New York, but I slowly came to realize that there is no one center. The center is everywhere – wherever people are living out their lives. It’s a city with a million centers.”

From the get go, City of Girls is flamboyant, painting a picture of absolute hedonism of youth as the whole world sits on the brink of World War 2.

For the first half, we follow Vivian on her escapades, including the moment she loses her virginity, which I have to say, made me giggle heartily; as well as the numerous nights she spends causing a riot in the city with her wing woman, Celia Ray, a drop dead gorgeous show girl who inhabits Vivian’s bed nightly in a purely platonic manner. However, we all know that this sort of lifestyle is seldom permanent and, as is often the case with protagonists, the fall of Vivian is quite the climax. Our Vivvie, as she is affectionately known, now in her early twenties, makes a mistake; falling into bed with said wing woman and the husband of a well-known and beloved actress who is in fact acting in a show at the very same theatre our Vivian lives and works at. She pays for it big time, once again being banished back to her parents in the country, but only after a barrage of insults that could rip anyone to shreds have been hurled her way.

At this point in the novel, the story takes a turn, and we are able to feel the slow creep of World War 2 seeping into the story. It would also be fair to say that the second half of the novel doesn’t quite have that same ‘oomph’ about it as the first did.

The months pass, and Vivian, now trapped in a world of ‘nice’ men and old friends who are all marrying said ‘nice’ men and having babies, loses a little of her pizazz that kept us hanging off her every word back in the beginning. There are no wild nights to be enjoyed, and no one to ply Vivian with as much alcohol as Celia Ray ever did, that’s for sure. As the Great War begins to unfold, though, she soon finds herself back in the arms of New York when her aunt comes to fish her out of her parents’ home and throws her back into the Big Apple with the promise of a steady job.

“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.”

The years pass, the war ends, and Vivian remains in New York, although this time with a much smaller entourage. It’s just her and her business partner Marjorie Lowtsky, who she lives with platonically whilst creating wedding dresses for the alternative bride. It’s here that she finds the love of her life too, in the form of a former soldier with such a severe case of PTSD that they cannot even touch each other. Don’t build up too much hope for a sparkling romantic romp, because that certainly isn’t the case. In fact, Vivian remains promiscuous throughout the rest of the novel, and the love of her life, well, you’ll just have to see for yourself how he feels about that.

By the end of City of Girls, you’ll have felt every range of emotion, from the fizzy excitement of a remembered youth to the gut-wrenching loss of family, friendship and love that comes with life. In the words of Vivian’s love himself: “the world ain’t straight”, and that’s certainly an easy enough message for anyone to agree with. It’s the way that Vivian redeems herself by the end of the novel that struck me most, with her inability to let her mistakes define her as she continues into old age. There’s certainly something thrilling about a woman who has lost so much being able to teach others that we don’t need to let the past hinder our future progress as we become who we are truly meant to be.

4 stars for this beauty. I’ll be reading it again someday.

“…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.”


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