This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.
City of Girls
has everything I hope for in historical fiction: well-researched period details, gargantuan personalities, and more sex than I ever found in my history textbooks! With her trademark exuberance and wit, Elizabeth Gilbert vividly evokes the glitz, grit, and clamor of New York City in the 1940s. At the bright center of it all is Vivian Morris, a proper young woman itching to be anything but. She rushes headlong into all the adventures she can find and has more fun than polite society allows — but not without consequences. Gilbert doesn't shy away from exploring the uglier parts of American history, which lends the story a level of depth and credibility that makes it feel three-dimensional. It's a smart, heartbreaking, joyful look at a life and I closed the book wishing it were twice as long. — Lauren P.
It’s the classic American story that’s fueled everything from On the Town
to Midnight Cowboy
’s Carrie Bradshaw: a small-town kid heads to the Big City for sex, thrills, and fame. It’s an inherently exciting framework because it contains a lot of the elements we look for in escapist entertainment: a coming-of-age (and sometimes comeuppance) tale, a rags-to-riches plotline, and a vivid glimpse into the glam and grime of America’s most famous city; plus, Manhattan’s blend of seediness and glamor, and its diversity of bodies and personalities, positively radiates with sexual possibility. It might be a crowded, rat-infested island basically owned by foreign oligarchs, but New York’s literary appeal has remained essentially unchanged since Lily Bart graced its tea rooms.
Elizabeth Gilbert wholeheartedly adopts the girl-meets-city trope and the resulting novel is a ton of fun. Beautiful Vivian Morris is a small-town rich girl desperate for some spice. After failing out of college, her parents send her to live with her (wonderful) Aunt Peg at Peg’s down-on-its-heels Times Square theater house. Vivian’s a talented seamstress, and quickly settles into a routine of creating costumes for Peg’s showgirls by day and exploring the city and its men by night, with the luscious showgirl Celia Ray by her side. Vivian’s an intriguing blend of vain, naïve, and self-possessed, and it’s a great deal of fun watching her come into her own with loving and lovable, if not quite reputable, friends by her side. Gilbert is at her best when illuminating the prewar and WWII-era New York theater scenes, and her witty descriptions of the people on and behind the stage, as well as those populating the glamorous night clubs Vivian and Celia frequent, pulse with life. The reader wants to dive into the text, don a feathered gown, and count ticket receipts.
The writing also shines in City of Girls
’ sex scenes. Much like the best romance novelists, Gilbert is adept at voicing women’s desires and the awkward but rewarding process of learning how to communicate them. Female pleasure is central in City of Girls
, and the novel is unsubtle in its argument that women can and should have sex whenever and with whomever they please... as long as they remember to put friendship first. It’s not the most exciting argument, but it remains an important one in our society, where women are often made to feel embarrassed or worse over voicing their sexuality. Gilbert is likewise skilled at depicting realistic female friendships, and her portrait of Vivian as she grows into a mature, independent woman feels authentic.
Our one quibble is that as the novel proceeds past Vivian’s fantastic first years in the city, her voice gradually transitions from one of a spoiled but delightful girl into a reasonable woman who dispenses self-affirming platitudes about sex, independence, and friendship. One gets the feeling that Vivian has moved from showgirl-adjacent to Gilbert-adjacent; she’s read Eat, Pray, Love
and set out to lead an enlightened life, causing the novel to lose much of its glitter. But perhaps, in the end, that’s Gilbert’s point: When the show is over and the audience goes home, the small-town kid is left with herself. Who did she become under the city’s bright lights?
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here