‘City of Girls’ : Eat, Don’t Pray, Have Loads of Sex with Sailors
Because I’m a white woman who does what other white women do, I first encountered Elizabeth Gilbert when I read her runaway success memoir “Eat, Pray, Love.” Then I saw the hit movie based on the memoir. Then I followed her on social media where she regularly addresses her fawning acolytes as “Dear Ones.” Then I watched her drop her rich author wisdom at a few women’s conferences. And, of course, it’s not easy to avoid the plentiful articles about her somewhat dramatic personal life.
I’ve never really liked it when a writer becomes a known personality, especially when their personality is that of a semi-smug guru. So when Gilbert’s latest book, a novel named City of Girls, came out, I was prepared to hate-read it. What does she even know about writing anymore? Isn’t she too busy hanging out with Oprah and Gayle to actually work? Turns out, she knows a lot about writing. Dammit.
Gilbert has set City of Girls in the bohemian New York City theater world of the 1940’s. That’s the big reason I was immediately hooked, and Gilbert deftly captures the feel of that time and place with her vivid descriptions and her inclusion of real personalities like Walter Winchell. The story told is that of Vivian Morris, an elderly woman now reflecting on her years as a naïf finding her way in NYC in the years before WWII. She meets various characters (wild showgirls, British stage stars, alcoholic secret lesbians) and becomes entangled in a scandal, which starts her on a path to maturing and building an authentic life. And while all of that makes for an engrossing and amusing read, it’s not what sets the novel apart from other women-centric fiction.
The uniqueness of City of Girls is there’s a lot of sex. Through the character of Vivian, Gilbert explores female promiscuity and pleasure to an extent that’s unusual for a rather conventional novel. Vivian is a pretty girl, as she tells us many times, and soon becomes quite the Libertine after losing her virginity in a rather odd experience. Her sexual exploits are many, and sometimes hilarious, and Gilbert writes them in great detail. Unapologetic Vivian claims she’s only good for two things: “sewing and screwing.” Then she later puts it more elegantly and says, “Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.” Kind of semi-smug guru language, but by that point, I didn’t care.
I found the framing device of why Vivian was telling her story wonky, and the end reveal is a bit tacked on, but those are small quibbles. Overall, this is an entertaining read that sucks you in with the vibrant characters, funny dialogue, the fast pace of midtown 1940’s Broadway, and the affection you’ll no doubt grow for Vivian.
(Riverhead, June 4, 2019)