Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, City of Girls, begins with a request: Angela asks her father’s friend Vivian to clarify her relationship with the man in the wake of his death. The response to this request is a love story, a lust story, a war story, a theater story and a family drama. Rich and layered, it’s a story about choices and a woman who carved an unconventional path towards happiness.
Opening in 1940, Vivian Morris is 19 when her parents send her to live with her Aunt Peg in New York City. Peg and her partner Olive run the Lily Playhouse, a Hell’s Kitchen theater that specializes in showgirl-centric musicals that merely entertain the locals. But that changes when Peg’s estranged husband Billy arrives and writes City of Girls, a smash hit that puts the Lily on the map. While the Lily’s star is rising, however, Vivian becomes entangled in a love triangle that puts her on a collision course with the most important man in her life: Angela’s father.
The loosely epistolary novel clocks in at nearly 500 pages, and Gilbert takes the long route to introduce the man Vivian discusses. It’s a testament to Gilbert’s writing that this isn’t a handicap. What could feel gimmicky—writing a letter to an oft-mentioned woman whose relationship to the narrator is not made clear for hundreds of pages—is instead thrilling and deliciously complex.
The moral of the story, which Vivian tells Angela late in the novel, is that “life isn’t straight.” Life may appear linear when viewed scene by scene, but every moment is shaped in random ways by people and events that came before. That’s why to answer Angela’s request, Vivian must explain how she ended up in New York, her brief exile, her war years, her career. One thing leads to another leads to another, and the meaning of the sum requires an understanding of the parts to be fully grasped.
Most of those parts revolve around women and the relationships they build with one another. Vivian’s New York is populated entirely by women and the men allowed into their orbits, as lovers or business associates. Gilbert doesn’t paint a rosy picture of midcentury New York, but she does create a safe harbor for Vivian, a sensualist, in the camaraderie of other women. From the Lily’s showgirls to Peg and Olive, it’s women Vivian can rely on. Men are disposable, except, of course, for Angela’s father.
Although some threads drag through the middle of the book and others feel truncated, Gilbert skillfully keeps one eye on the story’s purpose while letting Vivian take her time getting there. And Vivian, writing her life story as she looks back from old age, is wise enough to roll her eyes at her own youthful hubris—but always with pride and a sense of humor. City of Girls paints one hell of a life, and it’s a joy to read Vivian’s recounting. The result is a rollicking and thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age story that becomes so much more.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.