14 October 2021

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

I wasn't in a hurry to read this new Elizabeth Gilbert book even though she's a top author for me because it's set in the 40's and I don't care for period work. Slowing down on our reviews felt like a good time to read what I thought was going to be a slow burner but I ended up liking it, or most of it, I think.

City of Girls follows young Vivian who goes to NYC to live with her aunt after being kicked out of college. Her aunt runs a tiny, rundown playhouse where Vivian begins working as a costume designer. The story is told through letters that Vivian is writing to a woman named Angela, but you don't find out who she is until closer to the end. 

If I'd known then what I know now- namely: that so many of those beautiful young boys would soon be lost to the battlefields of Europe or to the infernos of the South Pacific- I would have had sex with even more of them." 

Vivian leads a very rebellious and promiscuous life in NYC and is influenced by all of the actors and playhouse staff around her who lead very similar, untraditional lives. Half the book takes place before the war, and the other after, when the poor economy closes the playhouse and Vivian starts a wedding gown business with her close friend. 

I found this super slow and boring in the first half, and it's a longer novel to begin with (~470 pages). It takes ages for anything to "happen" and I wasn't being built up by the build-up. This is exactly what I pictured when I thought about getting into this book, being a period piece that's about theatre. Once I was into the second half though, I found myself really enjoying it and being grateful for all of the first half backstory in retrospect. So I guess I don't really know what I think about this at all.

This is very clearly a feminist piece of writing but it's not in your face. Pretty much all of the main characters are women and the majority of them live, even in the wartime era, without men or reliance on men. The women are sexually liberal, some homosexual, and there is a lot of negativity around the concept of marriage. I know next to nothing about NYC during this time period but my sense is that these women were sort of ahead of their time...

The secret to falling in love so fast, of course, is not to know the person at all. You just need to identify one exciting feature about them, and then you hurl your heart at that one feature, with full force, trusting that this will be enough of a foundation for lasting devotion." 

I think Gilbert writes really well in the first person. She did the same in The Signature of All Things which is one of my favourite fiction books, and while City of Girls won't top my lists anywhere, there's something you get from the first person that you just don't from the third. I appreciated the intimacy and honestly in Vivian's letters to Angela and I think that's what ultimately held my interest. 

When we are young, Angela, we may fall victim to the misconception that time will heal all wounds and that eventually, everything will shake itself out. But as we get older, we learn this sad truth: some things can never be fixed. Some mistakes can never be put right- not by the passage of time, and not be our most fervent wishes, either... After a certain age, we are all walking around this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries." 

Overall I think this plot just wasn't for me. I don't like period stuff, wartime stuff, etc. and I have almost no interest in theatre. I haven't read anything else like this so I can't really compare it to much but I would definitely suggest other Gilbert books to read over this one, both fiction and non. It is humorous at times and there's a certain charm to it I appreciated. I think if you know this is the type of content you like then it would be worth exploring, but if you're reading it because you like the author (like me) then it's maybe a pass. 

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