Before Elizabeth Gilbert reached the pinnacle of publishing fame with her memoir “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia,” she was a novelist. “Stern Men” (2000), which was set among lobstermen in Maine, launched her career, while her more recent “The Signature of All Things” (2013) followed a 19th-century botanist in her travels. Now, for your beach-reading pleasure, comes "City of Girls," an engaging coming-of-age story set in New York in the lead-up to World War II.
Gilbert gravitates toward geographic and spiritual journeys, and true to form “City of Girls” starts with its young narrator and protagonist, Vivian, breaking out of the world of her wealthy, conservative family to travel to New York for an adventure.
After failing out of Vassar, Vivian is rescued by her Aunt Peg, the black sheep of the family. Peg issues an invitation to stay with her at the theater she owns near Times Square, which showcases formulaic musicals that cater to the neighborhood’s immigrant community. There Vivian puts her sewing talents to use as a costume designer and runs wild with a passel of showgirls, the glamorous and scantily clad not-quite-dancers who populated stages of the 1930s and ’40s.
Taking young Vivian under their collective wing, the showgirls include her in their gossip, initiate her in the clubs they frequent, and orchestrate the loss of her virginity in a comically awkward sex scene. (Reader beware, if you’re not up for naughty bits in your summer read.)
The heart of the story is the theater people Vivian encounters, including Peg’s charming, feckless screenwriter husband, Bill; the gifted actress Edna Parker Watson and her vapid movie-star husband; the knockout Bronx-born showgirl Celia Ray; and eventually a love interest in leading-man Anthony.
Yet despite all these husbands and lovers, “City of Girls” centers on relationships among women, at least in its first half, exploring the promises and pitfalls of female friendships through the eyes of the cluelessly entitled Vivian, who is at first blind to almost everything apart from her own pleasure.
The turning point comes when young Vivian acts out of insecurity and self-absorption in a way that has wide-ranging, painful consequences for the people who have been good to her. (Peg’s long-suffering secretary, Olive, who Vivian sees as stodgy and humorless, emerges here as an everyday hero, effectively cleaning up the messes everyone else makes.) Vivian’s misstep involves a sexual indiscretion, and Gilbert, through the now-mature Vivian’s narration, takes pains to delineate the difference between the legitimate shame and remorse Vivian feels for the way she has hurt others, while condemning the humiliating double standard to which women are subjected. There is, in other words, a distinction between being a good person and “a good girl.”
It’s interesting to consider the theme of spiritual growth as an individual path of self-reflection and accountability, rather than following socially sanctioned rules. It’s a thread that runs through Gilbert’s writing and is part of what made “Eat, Pray, Love” so wildly popular.
While I am all for this message, fiction generally works best when it isn’t overly message-driven, as Gilbert’s novel is at times.
The occasional sense of being lectured to was off-putting at times, and isn’t helped by the conceit that mature Vivian is recounting her story to a reader to whom she wishes to impart wisdom, a person whose relationship to Vivian is revealed late in the book.
As she matures, Vivian finds herself making the difficult choice to listen to and forgive someone who hurt her deeply. Taking up this mantle of adulthood leads to her most important relationship, one that is romantic though not sexual, with a war veteran. Here, Gilbert does a deft job of exploring how the war could affect the emotional health of the young men who enlisted.
Through these twists and turns, “City of Girls” captures a world and will keep readers turning pages to see what’s in store for young Vivian, not to mention exploring the importance both of owning our mistakes and forgiving ourselves as well as others.
Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York.