Friday, August 02, 2019

Embracing life: Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls, set in the theater world of mid-20th century Manhattan

The heroine of Gilbert’s bold, zesty historical novel couldn’t be more different from The Signature of All Things’ intellectual Alma Whittaker, but the books share worthy themes, like the importance of embracing life and women’s self-acceptance. Attractive and rich, Vivian Morris gets kicked out of Vassar in 1940 for never attending class. Her despairing, distant parents send her to live in Manhattan with her aunt Peg, co-proprietress of the Lily Playhouse, a shabby venue that stages middling productions for the area’s working-class denizens.

Finding a home among the performers and crew, Vivian dives headlong into the theater world. A gorgeous showgirl named Celia draws Vivian into her habits of late-night carousing, smoking, drinking, and sleeping with attractive men—lots of them. Before that, though, Vivian must shed her unwanted virginity, and that scene is hilarious in its cringe-worthy awkwardness.

When one of Peg’s old chums, British actress Edna Parker Watson, arrives in town with her handsome-but-dumb thespian husband, Peg feels she must stage a production deserving of Edna’s talents. This leads (with many people’s help, including Vivian’s as costume designer) to the creation of a musical called City of Girls, a show described in such entertaining detail that readers will want to buy tickets. Vivian continues to fling herself into her hedonistic lifestyle regardless of consequences—until there are, in fact, awful consequences that shape her later life.

Aged 95, Vivian writes her life story for a woman named Angela, whose father she once knew, and whose identity is satisfyingly revealed toward the end. While these constant reminders (“…from that moment, on, Angela”) can be intrusive, the older Vivian’s voice contributes perspective and hard-won wisdom. Steeped in Manhattan theater glamour during WWII and after, City of Girls zips along throughout, wearing its research lightly as it showcases its cast of unabashedly liberated women during Vivian’s coming of age.

City of Girls was published by Riverhead in June; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. Gilbert's The Signature of All Things is reviewed here.


  1. Hi! I'm Carole from Carole's Chatter. I wondered if you would like to join the group of bloggers who share their posts on a monthly basis via Books You Loved. I host this link up on the first Wednesday of each month. If you would like to check it out just hop on over to Carole's Chatter. We would all love to see you there. Cheers

  2. Thanks for the invitation, Carole, I'll be happy to join the group!