This novel is brimming with life.
We are first introduced to the heroine of City of Girls, Vivian Morris, in 2010. She is looking back on her life - specifically her madcap youth spent in 1940s New York. The early sections of the novel are gossipy effervescence with Vivian’s narration reading like an unholy hybrid of Joan Rivers and Truman Capote. Vivian leads us back to 1940 where she describes herself as being “nineteen years old and an idiot”. She has just been thrown out of the prestigious women’s college Vassar and so with very few options available, her well-heeled parents decide to send her to New York to stay with her eccentric aunt, Peg. Vivian’s parents could not have chosen a less suitable chaperone for Vivian, “a girl so freshly hatched that there was practically yolk in my hair”. Peg runs a crumbling theatre, the Lily Playhouse, has an estranged playboy husband in Hollywood, and drinks martinis by the dozen; chaos emanates from her. That all means one thing to Vivian - unbridled fun.
A love letter to New York and showbusiness.
You could argue that New York is the most important character in City of Girls. Gilbert’s way of describing city life is particularly beautiful:
“So many different dinnertimes, so many different work hours. Everyone was different ages, different races. Some people were resting, some labouring, some all alone, some celebrating in boisterous company. I never tired of moving through these scenes. I relished the sensation of being one small dot of humanity in a larger ocean of souls.”
For Vivian, moving to New York is a watershed moment that changes her life. America is yet to enter the Second World War, causing New York to still be frivolous and merry in stark contrast to a war-torn Europe. Everyone around Vivian is taking advantage of their good fortune. When Peg lets fashion-obsessed Vivian become the costume director of the theatre, she becomes fully immersed in a world that is raucous, glamorous and sexy, one inhabited by showgirls, dancers and cads.
The relationships between women take centre stage.
Vivian’s most important relationships are with women. It is the women that surround her that inspire her most. Her best friend is a showgirl, Celia Ray: “a glittering composite of sophistication and mystery”. Vivian works hard to emulate her and there is an obsessive quality to their interaction. Gilbert has brilliantly captured how fervent female friendship can be, particularly when you are young. Later, a famed British actress and war refugee, Edna Parker Watson, arrives at the theatre. Vivian is captivated immediately: “I had just encountered true glamour for the first time”. When Vivian falls, she falls hard.
Female sexual awakening is depicted without compromise or shame.
Vivian’s sexual awakening as a young woman is discussed in detail, and it’s so refreshing. There is no guilt here; she enjoys sex in all its flavours, never limiting herself or judging her needs. She does not suffer from a lack of confidence and is particularly secure in her looks. When viewed from the vantage point of our Instagram obsessed society, Vivian’s self-confidence would make you feel nostalgic for a simpler time.
Warning: This book may make you book flights to New York.
Vivian is a gutsy heroine with a clear-eyed view of life, and I enjoyed her company throughout the novel. City of Girls is an ode to being both young and stupid, and old and wise. It is in equal parts entertaining and moving, a combination that is not easy to get right. I absolutely loved the novel, and yes, I actually booked flights to New York once I reached the last page.
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