“City of Girls”
By Elizabeth Gilbert
(Riverhead Books, 470 pp, $28)
It’s almost embarrassing to adore a book as much as I do “City of Girls.”
On the first page of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest deeply satisfying novel, she writes: “I can’t be the only ancient woman still tottering around New York City, absolutely refusing to abandon either her life or her real estate.”
And so, I was hooked and happy to face an eight-hour flight. While others groaned about delays, I happily turned pages.
Gilbert, of Frenchtown, creates a character for the ages in Vivian Morris, the sort of wise woman of taste we would all benefit from knowing. Well ahead of her time, Vivian was disaffected by her parents’ traditional plans for her.
Born in 1920, her parents sent her to stay with an aunt in Manhattan after Vassar did not want her returning, despite being a wealthy legacy student. She was a bit feckless but determined to flee her small town and stuffy parents.
Her aunt, a generous bohemian, owned a dilapidated building in Hell’s Kitchen. There, the last gasps of vaudeville played out on a sagging stage. And Vivian’s real education began as she befriended showgirls.
In this long volume, Vivian, now 89, reflects on her life. She’s telling her story to Angela, a minor character. It isn’t until the end that their connection is made clear. Angela matters, but she matters most as the person Vivian to whom relays her life.
By page five, I not only want to know Vivian, I want to be her. She’s still a bit naïve when she arrives in New York, but is only too happy to learn about sex and the legendary NYC nightlife. Vivian possesses a true talent; she’s an excellent seamstress and can disassemble ruined old frocks and fashion them into exquisite costumes and dresses.
Vivian learned from the best master seamstress, her grandmother, “a tall, passionate, aging coquette with dyed mahogany hair who moved through life in a plume of perfume and gossip, and who dressed like a circus show.”
Her skill with a needle gave Vivian entrée to New York, informed her way of looking at the world and eventually led to a business designing and sewing wedding gowns. Along the way, Vivian took many, many lovers, and was embroiled in a scandal that sent her returning briefly to her parents.
Vivian relies on her brother, the golden child who dropped out of Princeton to enlist in the Navy, to spirit her out of the city and back home. He had to convince another sailor to drive them. And that driver, eventually, becomes an important part of Vivian’s life.
The day she returns home, in the wake of a scandal that would still make the news, Vivian’s parents do not probe. She explains why to Angela (remember her? She’s the intended recipient of this story; we’re just onlookers). “You need to understand that we have only one central rule of engagement, and here it is: This matter must never be spoken of again.
“We WASPs can apply that rule to anything – from a moment of awkwardness at the dinner table to a relative’s suicide.
“Asking no further questions is the song of my people.”
Vivian, though, was never meant for a life in the suburbs or the sacrifices of motherhood. And so, she returned to New York, where she was meant to be. Drawn to flashy, colorful women, Vivian and Marjorie, an immigrant, running her parents’ fabrics store, become friends then business partners.
In “City of Girls,” Gilbert relays a history lesson about New York City during wartime working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She gives us a character who is vain, yet self-aware, who had much handed to her but worked extremely hard.
She and her chorine friends drank hard and caroused with all their might. And it’s here that Gilbert, who creates a nuanced woman, shines. Her scenes about sex are magnificent. All too often writers’ takes on sex read as if they’re from 14-year-old boys, unsure of how a woman’s body works.
Instead, Gilbert writes knowingly and gracefully about sex. Vivian’s deflowering – a most perfunctory and disappointing romp with a boring veterinarian – is comical in its mannered precision. Vivian finally has her first orgasm, “a sensation occurring here that I didn’t even know could occur.”
In keeping with presenting an accurate history for her fictional characters, Gilbert reminds us that birth control was illegal for unmarried women in the ’40s.
As Vivian made her rounds of nightclubs and men, she held true to not sleeping with married men. She was a stalwart friend and a loving niece to her aunt and her aunt’s partner. Her aunt had a husband, a handsome California screenwriter and bon vivant, but she loved and lived with her lesbian partner.
As with the best fiction, Vivian’s adventures and relationships are plausible. Unique to Gilbert’s character, though, is Vivian’s élan and her self-awareness, and how she represents feminism forged in those who stepped up during World War II.
Decades after first befriending a chorine, a very tough Bronx girl who had been abused and tossed out of her parents’ home, and who suffered far more in the scandal than Vivian had, Vivian espies her on a TV commercial. They had been the best of friends, yet it had to end badly.
“Scandal or no scandal, I believe that our friendship was always destined to have been momentary – a collision of two vain young girls who intersected at the zenith of their beauty and the nadir of their intelligence, and who had blatantly used each other to acquire status and turn men’s heads. That’s all it had ever been, really, and that was perfect. That’s all it had ever needed to be. I’d found deeper and richer female friendships later on in life, and I hoped that Celia had, too.”
That paragraph sums up some of this novel’s magic. A clear-eyed woman not living on regrets, and can reflect on a life well lived.
Gilbert shot to fame writing about women living well. Admittedly, I may be the only person who did not read “Eat Pray Love” (I made the mistake of seeing the movie), and so did not fall to her monumental talent until “The Signature of All Things.” That was another long book about another long-lived and interesting woman. Anyone who can make the world of moss fascinating has my attention.
Then, came “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” a heartfelt and excellent book brimming with advice. “City of Girls” is special in its own right, and Vivian imparts plenty of sage advice. I plan to push this on anyone who asks (and likely on those who don’t), though unlike most all of my books, I am not parting with this copy.