“I hope you’re having a good time, too. People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong. Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is waste it. So do the right thing with your youth, Vivian—squander it.”
- Billy Buell in City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
I expected to love City of Girls. I expected it when I went to hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak about it and, as usual, she was clever, wise, and uninhibited. I expected it all the way through the first half of the book. Authors tend to model heroines after themselves, so we see a lot of bookish wallflowers in fiction. It’s always fun to have what I think of as a Scarlett O’Hara heroine—a selfish, shallow, beautiful girl who loves fun and attention. So when I met Vivian, the lead in this book, I was ready to love her.
City of Girls is written in an epistolatory format, from Vivian to her younger acquaintance Angela. Angela’s parents have died, and Angela writes to ask how Vivian knew her father. Vivian answers with a memoir describing her entire adult life. After getting kicked out of Vassar College in 1940, Vivian is sent to stay with her aunt in New York City. Her aunt owns a small, shabby theatre, and moves Vivian in upstairs. Vivian, who’s always been a little too wild for her conservative upper-class environment, finally feels permitted to be herself. In a sweeping romp several chapters long, she loses her virginity and spends every night drinking, dancing, and picking up men in bars. Then Vivian gets caught up in a scandal, hurts some people close to her, and runs back home to her parents. This is where things start to feel disjointed. This is halfway through the novel, and, to our knowledge, Angela’s father still hasn’t made an appearance. This part of the book could have been a great coming-of-age novel, or the story of a private sexual revolution. Vivian has epiphanies, develops some depth of character, learns to balance morality and freedom—it’s all very interesting and readable. But as the story of someone’s father’s unknown relationship, it’s an utter failure. The second half of the book, in which World War II starts and Vivian goes back to New York, gets a job, makes friends, and finally meets Angela’s father, is both boring and rushed. Although she’s still more liberated than the other women of her time, Vivian feels like a different person in this part of the book. She’s more worried, more careful, harder working. Because her character shift occurs in the middle of the novel, we’re left wondering why we’re still reading. Her relationship with Angela’s father seems tacked onto the end like an epilogue.
Gilbert has spoken to multiple sources about wanting to create a foil for older novels where women sexually transgress and then die from the consequences. Perhaps that desire drives this book too much. At times it seems like a book about the conventional choices Vivian doesn’t make and ordinary things that don’t happen to her. I’m not sure why a book that Gilbert specifically intended to be empowering to women needed to be framed around a man at all. Vivian’s relationship with Angela’s father is unnecessary to her development as a character. It is evidence of her development, but not a catalyst. So it seems to be a side note in the story but professes to be the focal point.
All that said, I did like this book. I liked the plucky underdog theatre. I thought the period setting was a challenge that Gilbert conquered beautifully. The details of 40’s fashion and dialogue worked to make the plot feel anchored and real (they can so often feel overloaded and distracting in historical novels). It’s an easy read, and would be a great poolside summer companion. And I think there’s a lot of wisdom in this book. I just wish it had been delivered a little more coherently.