- What: City of Girls
- Who: Elizabeth Gilbert
- Pages: 466, hard cover
- Genres: Historical fiction and chick lit
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
In terms of literature, I haven’t had the best start to 2020. I’ve read some meh books, some I didn’t like, and also quite depressing ones. I vowed to change that about a month ago. With my birthday and a trip to San Diego on the horizon, I needed something fun.
Elizabeth Gilbert met my needs. I mean, how could she not? In her latest book, Gilbert combines two of my favorite genres with my favorite city to produce effervescent characters, stellar voice, a captivating story and plot, and wit beyond belief — and relief. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed out loud while reading of City of Girls, and I really was smiling throughout this entire book. Now that is some high praise and exactly I what I needed.
“Sometimes it’s just true that other people have better ideas for your life than you do.” — City of Girls
Let’s get this out of the way: Vivian Morris was way ahead of her time. It just took a few decades to become apparent.
In 1940, she’s kicked out of Vassar College for simply not attending Vassar College. You can’t really blame the school. When someone is more concerned about smoking cigarettes than actually attending class, well, maybe prestigious education isn’t for them. So her parents ship her to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg.
Although Vivian’s parents make this seem like a last resort due to their utter bewilderment of their daughter, they unintentionally bestow upon her the greatest gifts life could ever afford. New York and the Lily Playhouse, the crumbling theater owned by Aunt Peg and where Vivian will live, become the home she’s never had and will awaken her to the sights and experiences around her.
Soon Vivian envelopes herself in the theater, as well as the debauchery that comes from hanging out with starlets and showgirls. She’ll discover sex, booze, a passion for fashion and costumes, and herself all thanks to the charismatic and unconventional characters who walk through the Lily Playhouse’s door. Fun can be fleeting though, and being carefree leads Vivian right into a scandal that will pull her away from this fabulous life she has groomed for herself. The pain and grief that her actions cause, however, will also teach her that staying true to yourself is the only way to live.
“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 there is no one center. The center is everywhere — wherever people are living out their lives. It’s a city with a million centers.” — City of Girls
City of Girls is told by a 90-year-old Vivian as she writes to a friend who wants to know what really happened between her father and Vivian. For that to make sense, Vivian must tell the full tale, the one that starts from her childhood and goes until her middle age, which is incredibly powerful. For all of us to gain wisdom and understand who we truly are, don’t we need to reflect on all of our experiences and how they catalyzed and affected one another? Don’t we all need to connect them and analyze what we’ve learned? Because even though a moment in time or a singular action never define the person, combined with others, they form our true selves.
While that may sound deep and poetic (especially for me), I assure you Gilbert keeps things light-hearted. She excels with a turn of the phrase, and the wit and charm that define Vivian equate to such poignant writing, which directly translates to Gilbert’s power and skill as a storyteller.
I am so impressed by how much humor, wisdom, and wit are bestowed upon Vivian and how Gilbert maintains these characterizations from start to finish. At some points, one may outweigh the others, which only makes sense considering where Vivian may be in the story of her 90 years, but there is not one chapter that feels lacking in comparison to others. They all fit so perfectly together, and because Gilbert never gives anything that’s less than, you quite literally never want to put the book down.
I mean, just read this quote from one of the first chapters.
“And if it sounds like I’m about to tell you the story of an ugly duckling who goes to the city and finds out that she’s pretty, after all — don’t worry, this is not that story.
I was always pretty, Angela.
What’s more, I always knew it.” — City of Girls
That’s certainly setting us up for something fabulous.
This all reflects on my favorite element of writing: voice. And quite simply, it kicks ass in City of Girls. Having good voice means it both captivates and so symbolizes a character that you never have to question who he or she is. The character is defined by everything he or she says and thinks, the latter of which we, as readers, are fortunately privy to. To me, exceptional voice marks the essence of a true storyteller and writer. Gilbert doesn’t just fall into that camp; she owns it.
If I haven’t yet convinced you of the merits of solid voice and you’re worried that all the fun in City of Girls seems frivolous, fear not for Gilbert has given us strong messages too. The themes in this novel consist of feminism, self-love, equality, the power and magic of New York City, more or less sticking true to yourself, and the importance of living your best life.
I told you Vivian was ahead of her time.
“Anyway, 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.” — City of Girls
“A big old banana split of a book, surely the cure for what ails you,” writes Kirkus Reviews.
Boy, ain’t that the truth, especially when you’re reading it on a birthday trip and when you need some solid fun fiction. Though I might change my order to a big ole brownie with some strawberries sprinkled over it. All the decadence and fun in the world with a little of what you need to complement it.
“A person only gets to move to New York City for the first time in her life once … and it’s a pretty big deal.” — City of Girls
To prove I actually did read this on my San Diego adventure, check out these super artsy photos I took. I call them “City of Girls” an Airbnb adventure and Breakfast with a “City of Girls.”