In interviews about her new novel, “City of Girls,” author Elizabeth Gilbert said she wanted to write “a sort of fizzy, joyful, sex-positive book” – one that would go down like a champagne cocktail. And this one is crisp and fun, even as it explores serious topics of female desire, friendship and the consequences of the choices we make.
Our narrator, Vivian Morris, begins the story of her life in the summer of 1940 when, at 19, she has been sent home from Vassar. “Out of a class of 362 bright young Vassar women, I ended up ranked at 361,” Vivian explains. “A fact that caused my father to remark in horror, ‘Dear God, what was that other girl doing?’” Vivian’s parents send her to live in New York City with her Aunt Peg, the proprietor of a crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. Vivian works as a costumer for a horde of showgirls who teach her about life, men and sex – not necessarily in that order.
Gilbert’s novel features hilarious one-liners and observations, and a sweeping cast of characters so vividly described, you’ll think you knew them in real life. When Vivian makes a mistake that launches a societal scandal, the story swerves into more serious matters. She struggles against guilt and shame and quickly realizes that the rules for men and women – in the 1940s and long afterward – are vastly different.
“At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” an 80-something Vivian Morris says. “After that, she if free to become whoever she truly is.”
Gilbert’s widespread success began with her 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” a story of self-discovery through personal struggle. Her new novel explores similar themes. But this is a booze- and sex-filled romp that, in the words of showgirl Celia Ray, “makes you want to smoke too many cigarettes and laugh with your head thrown back.” Cheers!