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City of Girls: Elizabeth Gilbert's fizzing portrait of giddy young female hedonism

Review: The Eat Pray Love author said she wanted to write a book ‘that would go down like a champagne cocktail’. And that’s just what she’s done

City of Girls
City of Girls
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
ISBN-13: 978-1408867044
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

There’s a moment in the 1937 film Stage Door when Ginger Rogers, playing a struggling young actress, gazes down at Manhattan from the apartment of a sleazy theatrical producer who she hopes will give her a job. “I love New York from up here,” she says dreamily. “It’s all rouged and manicured and ready to go out for the evening.”

This sense of New York as a glamorous friend, a partner in crime, someone who looks perfect from a distance but is a little more complicated close up, is an integral part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s delicious new novel.

City of Girls is narrated by Vivian Morris, who is looking back on her youth from the perspective of the early 21st century. The story begins in 1940, when 19-year-old Vivian is sent to New York by her upper middle-class Wasp parents after dropping out of Vassar. Vivian goes to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a ramshackle theatre in midtown Manhattan where she lives with a number of other eccentrics, including her business partner Olive.

The Lily Playhouse offers cheap and cheerful shows to its local working class clientele, and soon Vivian is part of the gang, using her dressmaking skills to enhance and create the troupe’s shabby costumes. She’s embraced by the Lily’s showgirls, especially the star attraction Celia Ray, who introduces the newcomer to the heady world of Manhattan’s nightlife.


What follows is an eloquent and unashamed portrait of giddy young female hedonism, as Vivian describes how she and Celia “spun through New York City that summer on currents of pure electricity. Instead of walking, we rocketed. There was no focus; there was just a constant search for the vivid.”

Throughout City of Girls it's clear that truly behaving badly doesn't mean sleeping around, it means acting with cruelty and selfishness

Not all of the girls’ decisions are sensible or even safe; Gilbert doesn’t pretend that every hedonistic act is a good idea. But crucially, Vivian and Celia are not destroyed by their sexual adventures. “People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong,” Vivian’s Uncle Billy tells her. “Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is to squander it. So do the right thing with your youth, Vivian, squander it.”

Throughout City of Girls it’s clear that truly behaving badly doesn’t mean sleeping around, it means acting with cruelty and selfishness. And at the core of the novel is Vivian’s discovery of the profound difference between being a good person and being a “good girl”. That distinction, beautifully drawn by Gilbert, becomes very clear over the course of Vivian’s long life.

Champagne cocktail

Gilbert has said that, in these troubled political times, she wanted to write a book “that would go down like a champagne cocktail”. And that’s just what she’s done. City of Girls is enormously entertaining from beginning to end, with dialogue that sparkles and snaps with the vitality and sexual energy of a 1930s pre-code movie; some of the showgirl scenes could have come straight from the movie Gold Diggers (1933) or indeed Stage Door. Things get even more fun when Peg’s old pal Edna, a distinguished London stage actress, arrives to take the starring role in a production called City of Girls that will ultimately change the lives of everyone at the Lily.

She gets adventure, and sexual pleasure, and creative fulfilment and friendship – and love that comes from various surprising places

But this frothy delight delivers a real kick beneath the bubbles, and this is what makes City of Girls so effective. Just when you think you’re simply reading a fun book about 1940s Broadway life, Gilbert hits you with an emotional depth charge, all the more powerful for being wrapped up in spangles and greasepaint. In her last novel, The Signature of All Things, Gilbert showed her gift for authentically conveying what a whole life looks like, with all its unpredictable turns and sudden endings. She does this again in City of Girls, with deeply moving and satisfying results.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Vivian’s life doesn’t follow the narrative pattern expected of her. She doesn’t get what upper middle-class American girls of her generation are supposed to want: a college education swiftly followed by marriage and babies. But she gets something else. She gets adventure, and sexual pleasure, and creative fulfilment and friendship – and love that comes from various surprising places. The novel shows us that these things are worthwhile and beautiful in themselves, reminding us that there are lots of different ways for women to live, and to be.

“At some point in a woman’s life,” says Vivian, “she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.” Frivolous and profound in equal measure, this humane and remarkably generous book is an antidote to that shame.