“Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are”.
–Vivian Morris in City Of Girls
From Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat Pray Love, comes the fun, sexy, romp of a novel, City Of Girls.
Set in 1940s New York, City Of Girls feels like an ode to theatre, which is what I most enjoyed about this novel. I devoured the pages with a smile on my face, rapt with attention as the story unfolded.
City Of Girls follows nineteen-year-old protagonist Vivian Morris, just after she has dropped out of Vassar, a prominent private college. In frustration, her affluent parents send her to live with her eccentric, free-loving aunt Peg in New York City, not knowing or caring what to do with her.
What follows next is a tale of glamour, sex–lots of it–showgirls, and theatre, juxtaposed with the brutality of World War Ⅱ. The story centres on the Lily Playhouse, an old, falling-apart theatre, which houses aunt Peg’s vaudevillesque revue shows.
Vivian meets some wonderfully rich characters including drop-dead gorgeous show girl Celia Ray, suave leading man, Anthony Roccella, and the ever so exquisite British actress, Edna Parker Watson.
The book’s historical accuracy is remarkable. Well-researched and vividly descriptive, the novel offers a nostalgic tribute to a New York City that I only wish I had the chance to experience.
Most importantly, City Of Girls champions a woman’s right to agency. Vivian is unapologetic about her sexual escapades. “Not many people know how to be satisfied”, she says of her promiscuity. She refuses to conform to what society expects of a “good girl”.
But the book is careful not to be too far ahead of its time. There are consequences to Vivian’s actions eventually–this is 1940 after all-and her shame after said consequences signals a change of tone in the story. Here, we see how Vivian comes to terms with her unconventional desires in a repressive society.
But Gilbert does not let Vivian remain broken in her shame. The real win in this story happens when Vivian accepts that she is whole just as she is. She comes to realize that she is not broken–society is–and she once again lives her life unapologetically. Gilbert makes it clear that Vivian likes to have sex simply because she enjoys it. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time”, Vivian says in her old age. I can’t help but feel this is Gilbert’s plea to all women.
City Of Girls has the depth and heart that I love in a novel, while managing to tackle challenging themes, which is an impressive feat. It is, at its core, a call for women to take back their sexual agency and power. With movements like Me Too and Time’s Up on the rise, this might be just what we need.