“Let us not become so cautious that we forget to live.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert; City of Girls
Now would be a good time to tell you this review may contain spoilers. I’ll try to dial down on that but certain contexts that are crucial to understanding what makes this book so vividly captivating had to be included.
Imagine being kicked out of Vassar College and your own home. Anyone else would’ve been devastated with such a fall in status and glory. For nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris, however, that was never the case – it was the start of her life instead. Having been ‘banished’ to stay with her Aunt Peg, Vivian saw 1940 New York City as young as she was and ripe for the taking. Escaping the grasp of her family who have always expected more than she could ever possibly amount to, Vivian was now in the Big Apple wielding a power she has never held before: freedom.
Before diving into the messy entanglement of themes that Gilbert transformed into what is easily one of the greatest read I’ve ever picked off the shelf, let’s talk story. The first half of the book walks us through Vivian’s first year in New York, whereas in the second half of the book, Vivian sends us on a bullet train through a narrative of her quarter-life up to her current age of 89.
Upon being launched at full force into the city, Vivian was still the young girl who praised herself on her sewing skills, being able to build fashion pieces unlike any other, thanks to Grandmother Morris (may she rest in peace). She called herself a tourist, explaining no one could truly be a New Yorker until they knew the city like the back of their hands, going places without guides or maps. Even so, she wasn’t lost; Vivian knew exactly what assets were in her possession and how to use them to her advantage.
Firstly, there were her inherently good looks to which she comments: “I was always pretty… what’s more, I always knew it,” (this I adore, oh, to be a woman with unwavering confidence!). Then, there was the sewing machine ‘Singer 201’ her grandmother gifted her: “…it was murderously powerful, you could sew leather with it; I could have upholstered a Bugatti with that thing!” You read that right, ladies and gentlemen, Vivian Morris boarded the Empire State Express, “a gleaming, chrome, delinquent-daughter delivery device” with just those two assets (and her luggage, of course).
Vivian then moves into an apartment atop her aunt’s playhouse where she starts forging the inevitable camaraderie of the theater-city life. There was Peg herself who owned the Lily Playhouse, previously trained as Red Cross nurse and stationed in France amidst WWI, and married to Billy Buell. There was Olive, Peg’s secretary whose job scope entailed handling the finances and looking after Peg herself, a woman who will tolerate no flim flams. There was Marjorie, a spirited teenager with the oddest fashion sense who worked at her parents’ thrift store of sort. There was Edna Parker Watson, a stage actress who hailed from England and settled down temporarily at the Lily after her house in London had been lost to the war. Then, there’s Celia, a showgirl at the Lily who moves in with Vivian and shows her the ropes of the city, to which Vivian remarked made her feel like Celia’s handmaiden, but she didn’t mind at all. Nights trailing Vivian and Celia were just as you would imagine: burlesque, booze, cigarettes, clubs, lights, and a handful of sex (including one hilarious account of Vivian losing her virginity).
There were other well-crafted characters too, and in their presence, Vivian embarked on a journey of self-discovery, cheesy as it may sound. However, a blunder that involved Edna’s husband and Celia sent Vivian’s life spiraling down and right back to where she started – her parents’ house in Clinton. From there onward, Vivian’s life lost its glamour. She started having to fend for herself, which is when we see true growth in all kinds of circumstances; Vivian had been through scandals, engagements, grief – just about every rough patch you could fathom.
“…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.” After fighting tooth and nail for her freedom and beliefs (all while maintaining her trademark promiscuity), working for the Navy and returning to New York, she finally settled down on Eighteenth Street, opening her own bridal boutique with Marjorie.
As the story seems to close to an end, Gilbert does us one better and introduces Vivian to Frank Grecco, so-called the love of her life, giving the story a banging closure, which will be explained later.
What’s interesting about the book is the format it’s told in. Instead of being a current account, Gilbert decided to have Vivian look back on her life as she writes a letter to Angela (you’ll have to read the book to discover who she is). This doesn’t just give us readers an open book recount of her wild adventures; instead, it allows Vivian to insert emotions that she wasn’t aware of at the time of the happenings, feelings that appealed to her later on as she reflects on the life she had led.
Within the 466 pages of this hardcover book, Gilbert managed to paint not just New York City but also Vivian herself as gritty and glamorous – storming their way through life and finding a space for everyone who crosses their path. City of Girls rotates around the pivot of what it’s like to be a woman then (and now), as Gilbert tears away the facade that society tells young women to construct.
This book is heavily centered on women. Women from all walks of life. Vivian’s character, having lived with these women, tells us there is often more to what meets the eye. Sometimes we see the failures but not the tries; other times we see the successes but not the struggles. Peg, as in control as she appears of her life and the Lily Playhouse, has to fall back into the hands of Olive, Billy, and alcohol now and then. Olive, constantly seeming to adjust everybody’s life at the Lily, struggles with her own closeted emotions. Celia, as frivolous as she was – wandering the city at ungodly hours only to land herself in the bed of a strange man night and night again – had gone through too much for her age, getting into troubles that now lived in her mind, unable to be wiped away. And Vivian? Well, she’s the perfect embodiment of the fight between reliance and independence.
It all boils down to her no matter how the story progressed. When she left for New York City, she went alone. When her first love interest Anthony had left her, she dealt with the heartbreak. After Celia had vanished, she never really had another replacement (except for Marjorie, who was more like her business partner). When she got roped into a scandal, she was the one to feel guilt and shame. When Edna tells her she will never amount to anyone interesting, she had to bear that criticism and find a way to prove Edna wrong. When everyone was finally taken away from her, she only had herself to hold onto. Her story was hers only.
The ending of the book should be Gilbert’s proudest work. Gilbert penned Vivian to love someone who was in pain and didn’t try to hide it. Someone who didn’t look like Vivian (Celia), someone who Vivian didn’t aspire to be (Edna), someone who didn’t approach Vivian just for her looks (Anthony), and someone who was the polar opposite of herself. I’m sorry to say Vivian never ended up with this ‘someone’ but it was for the best. He was something she could never truly have, only understand. And understand she did.
City of Girls isn’t a quick, easy read of a girl who trades her life for alcohol and sex, nor is it a satirical story about a girl who simply accepts life as it is handed to her, no. The account of Vivian Morris’s life is one witty commentary on someone who has once had everything, then nothing, and through it all, managed to build her definition of independence and love. What Vivian has accomplished with her life isn’t something just anyone could comprehend, much less fulfill.
There’s a significant moment in the book that goes unacknowledged if you don’t take the time to absorb it. Frank tells Vivian: “Not many people know how to be satisfied.”
Indeed, only a limited number of us have reached the peak of self-actualization and satisfaction, but I guarantee you, reading this work of art by Elizabeth Gilbert and following through with the life of a nineteen-year-old and an idiot (her words, not mine) will gift you some kind of momentary satisfaction that you won’t ever regret.