Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel ‘City Of Girls’ takes the reader on a delightful romp through 1940s New York
Set in the world of theatre, the plot sizzles with fashion, glamour, intrigue and sexual frisson
In a brief note appended to the advance readers’ copy of City Of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert outlines her ambition for her third novel in this gem of a sentence: “My goal…was to write a book that would go down like a champagne cocktail." True to her words, City Of Girls turns out to be as smooth and intoxicating a ride.
In spite of its formidable girth (running close to 500 pages), one never quite feels its weight, nor any desire to put it down until the story is over. If Gilbert held us in thrall with her exploration of female desire and botanical history in her last novel, The Signature Of All Things, in City Of Girls she transports us to New York in the early years of the 20th century among a cast that remains vividly alluring till the end.
City Of Girls is narrated by 90-year-old Vivian Morris as a letter addressed to “Angela", whose real identity is revealed only in the last quarter of the story. Writing to explain her “relationship" with Angela’s father, Vivian goes back to the 1940s, when, as a girl of 20, she was “banished" to New York from her home in the suburbs to live with her aunt Peg after an unsuccessful stint at Vassar College. Fortunately for Vivian, Peg turned out to be the most unlikely moral guardian. Owner of a theatre called Lily Playhouse, she ran louche and borderline pornographic revues, featuring scantily clad showgirls and slapstick comedy.
In the years before the US became embroiled in World War II, New York was the centre of glamour. Soon after her arrival, Vivian, a gifted seamstress, endeared herself to the actors with her expertise at designing costumes. Celia Ray, the most dazzlingly beautiful showgirl among the group, became her fast friend and guide to the wild side of the city’s nightlife. At the end of each day, the two went out cavorting with men from various walks of life and got drunk. Aunt Peg, herself an alcoholic and bisexual, didn’t give two hoots. Vivian’s Uncle Billy, estranged from Peg and living in Hollywood, made a pit stop to write a mega-hit play called “City Of Girls" before he returned to his world of booze and women. His advice to his niece was “to do the right thing with your youth"— in other words, “squander it".
Like a musical threaded with a symphony of contrasting notes and filled with colourful characters, City Of Girls recreates the ambience of the 1940s with Gilbert’s keen attention to detail, especially to the fashion of the era and its attitude to towards women’s sexuality. Gilbert’s aim, to quote again from her note to readers, was “to write a novel about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires". In Vivian, we have a perfect specimen of one such woman, who is almost ruined by a sex scandal. But not only does she manage to recover from it, she also lives the rest of her long life on her own terms.
Much of her achievement, as Vivian reiterates in her letter to Angela, was made possible by her privilege. She never knew real disadvantage, even after being sent down from college. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, her parents had to cut down the household staff. Life went on as usual otherwise. Even in Vivian’s hour of trouble, it was Celia Ray, abused as a child and with no one in the world to turn to, who got the flak. Other than the reproach of her family, Vivian managed to escape relatively unhurt, as did the third person involved in the brouhaha, an untalented actor called Arthur Watson married to Edna Parker Watson, an icon of the British stage living in exile in New York and the chief draw of Uncle Billy’s play.
In Edna, Gilbert beautifully captures the contradictory impulses of her time. Chic and worldly, Edna is quick to take Vivian under her wing. Although unabashedly vain, she is also kind and solicitous towards her young fan. But Edna also drops Vivian in seconds when she learns of the scandal—and never forgives her. In contrast, she reinstates Arthur, her (third and much younger) trophy husband, with no ado.
City Of Girls, as Gilbert admits in her note, is a portrait of women’s lives and desires long before conversations like #MeToo were happening. Slut-shamed, mansplained and attacked in their 20s, women like Celia and Vivian experience the socialist and feminist ethos of the 1960s. But their fight does not ever end, nor does their moral vision become colour-coded into black and white. Her characters, as Gilbert puts it in her note, are not “woke"; rather, “they are awakening"—“as we all are."