City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert is my first foray into the author’s fiction and what a first experience it was. This book is everything you could want and more. There is tension, sex, subtlety; there is despair, there is realness, and there is life.
Gilbert’s narrator is Vivian, an old (in age only) woman who is looking back at her life with clear eyes and telling her story in all its gritty glory. Blair Brown’s performance as Vivian is steadfast yet spunky, capturing perfectly the airs that Vivian exudes as she shares her stories. We are transported back to the world of the New York theatre in the 1940s with such depth and layers that you feel the fabrics, people, and joie de vivre of the era.
Vivian is 19 when she is sent to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg in New York City after she failed out of Vassar College. She is self-assured in the sense that she knows who she isn’t and is open to who she is about to become. She throws herself into the life of the theater and she puts her sewing skills to good use. Through parties and engaging with nightlife, Vivian ends up perfecting a few other skills as well. This lifestyle, however, doesn’t last for long. As we have the benefit of Vivian telling her story from old age, we get to see how she moves past scandals, the war, and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s.
The first two-thirds of the book are upbeat, carefree, and almost flippant. But it’s the last part that drew me in the most. Vivian in her middle age is a true treasure. She continues to live by her own rules but does so with such poise and determination that you can’t help but cheer her on and wish she could impart more life lessons on you.
Gilbert expertly transports you to another time and place, and they consume you as Vivian’s story unfolds. Don’t be disheartened by the switch in the pace of the book. It is here in the slowness that we truly see the beauty of a woman building her life, her values, and her family. And it is here that we are treated to perhaps the most endearing part of Vivian’s life. It is here that she offers the best of herself to us, dear reader: she offers a reminder of the value in the love of friendship.
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