City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

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Gilbert’s City of Girls is the memoir of Vivian Morris’ life. Now, at 89, she is recounting her life story to the daughter of the man she loved.

At 19, Vivian Morris was a failure and a rather lazy, naïve young woman. She went to Vassar College but never attended classes and failed every single one. She came in 361 in a class of 362 freshmen. Vassar sent her home with a letter requesting that she not return.

It was 1940, and Vivian had spent a lot of time learning how to do a reverse roll, a hairstyle technique that was not Vassarish at all. She had also discovered a bar that offered cheap beer and live jazz. In other words, she wasn’t quite what Vassar was looking for.

After her disastrous year at Vassar, Vivian is sent off to live with her bohemian Aunt Peg in New York City. Aunt Peg owns a run-down theater, the Lily Playhouse. Peg and Vivian barely know each other, so when Vivian arrives; she looks all over Grand Central Station trying to find Aunt Peg without any luck. She realizes she is in the big city without a clue as to how to contact her aunt. Since she comes from money, she expects that someone will rescue her and eventually Olive Thompson, Peg’s secretary, appears. Olive is a plain, silver-haired woman in a grey suit with chunky, low-heeled black oxfords. She is hopelessly unstylish, in Vivian’s mind. Olive says Peg had an emergency at the theater and was unable to come meet Vivian.

It doesn’t take Vivian long to realize that Peg has no idea of how to chaperone her niece and runs the playhouse; it’s a zoo. Peg lives in a fourth-floor apartment above the playhouse with Olive, and she assigns Vivian to her husband’s suite on the third floor; the husband, Billy, lives on the west coast. Peg allows a few other cast members to live at the Lily Playhouse, too. Vivian becomes fast friends with Gladys, the dance captain, and Celia, one of the showgirls.

Vivian’s one redeeming feature was that she could sew—and loved to. Her grandmother taught her and had been a stern taskmaster. Vivian had lugged her industrial Singer sewing machine with her to New York and put it to good use as soon as the show girls learned she could sew.

Vivian took to living in New York like a duck to water. Vivian, Gladys and Celia go from one escapade to another until Edna and Arthur Watson, leading English actors, arrive. The Watsons were from London and were stuck in New York for the duration of the war. Their house had been obliterated by a Luftwaffe bomb, and there was no safe way to get back to England anyway.

Against this background, the novel picks up steam. Peg is inspired to create a real play instead of the low-brow musical comedies she’s been putting on. She contacts Billy, who comes to New York. He writes a good play for Edna, and Vivian begins to create a beautiful wardrobe for her. Edna takes New York by storm; all’s well at the Lily Playhouse. And then disaster strikes.

Vivian is banished to her home in Clinton and begins her life in purgatory. But this is only the first half of the story. The second half tells the story of what happened to Vivian after her near ruin and banishment. Vivian finally realizes what it is she wants from her life and how to achieve it.

Gilbert has written a fascinating period piece set against the backdrop of the theater and the beginning of World War II. This is a period in which social mores were questioned and the world was in flux. City of Girls is an unusual love story, and one that would be hard to believe had Gilbert not set the stage so well.

As she recounts her life, Vivian says, “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.” This is Gilbert’s theme: women should be free to pursue their sexuality without society judging them or punishing them. Finally, Vivian accepts who she is and lives her life as she sees fit. In the end, she finds work she truly enjoys and finds love in the most unexpected place.

The novel is interesting due to its background setting and its historical aspects. In many places, Gilbert could have reduced the verbiage and sped up the story. The worst part of the novel is that the characters never seem real; they are more like caricatures. Nevertheless, City of Girls is pleasant reading for a lazy weekend. ■