Mary A.

Review: City of Girls

Released April 7, 2020;
496 pages

Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

Overview from Barnes and Noble Website:

Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves – and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.

Now eighty-nine years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life – and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” she muses. “After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.” Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.

Personal Review

I guess I can take this book is good for what it actually is. If you are looking for a book that gives a slight insight into the tawdry of the era, this book will be for you. However, if you reading this book with the expectations of learning really anything about Vivian Morris, this isn’t for you.

The main character, Vivian a passive character in her own story. We weren’t really going through her life or understanding her choices, but more we were living through the times at this theater. The story could have benefited from having a centralized location (the theater) and creating a story around the central characters and the dynamics of their relationships and intertwining lives. Many times, we went chapters with Vivian just explaining what other characters were doing, not necessary as they interacted with her, just what she was observing. While a silent, observing character is not necessarily a negative narrative for a story, the problem comes when we as the reader are not told Vivian’s reaction or thoughts to the ongoing events. It almost read at times as an animal planet documentary with Vivian taking the role of David Attenborough while she described the complex relationships of the surrounding characters (who, let’s face it, had stories that felt more interesting and compelling than Vivian’s). Everything that happened to Vivian felt so passive. It was like she wasn’t deciding what to do and instead the story and the characters around her were telling her what to do.

The way the story was written, as a note directed to an outside character, you would have thought the story would have focused on Vivian’s character growth through the story (a well-off, smaller-town girl runs away to the big city – in the case, New York – and is thrown into the crazed night life surrounded by sex, drugs, and alcohol). However, the story almost reads nonsensical at times. Why would the main character be telling this other person about the relationships of the theatre owner? I think many had similar issues with Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother. What is the point of telling all of this story?! What did it matter about the personal life of this other actress if she was going to be forgotten midway through the story? The only thing that other actress did for the story was to be based on the typical manic pixie dream girl, only in this sense, not for a potential male love interest, but for a shy female character.

We have seen these characters before in nearly every show/movie/book where the main character is shyer, reserved or lived a more sheltered life. When they are thrown into this new world of chaos they always seem to run into characters that (A) instantly want to be best friends with this shy character, (B) are willing to act as gurus of the wild ways for seemingly no other reason other than to push the shy character past her limit, (C) teaches the main character (who, let’s face it, is already beautiful, but in the way where they don’t know they are beautiful until someone of equal beauty tells them) how to dress/behave in a certain way to attract the desired sex, and (D) to act as the threshold for behavior that will unquestionably be eventually passed by the main character in or near the climax of the story. Once the character becomes too wild for even the manic pixie female friend to handle, that tends acts as a turning point in the story.

While these options are not always the case for every story, it comes quite close. In this story especially, the turning point for the character comes when the manic pixie character convinces Vivian to go out for a night on the town with the manic’s well-known married lover. The night ends with the three engaging in a ménage a trois, but not before a bizarrely described three-way kiss in public that was photographed and published in the paper with names of all three. This – similar to option (D) – sets the standard and is labeled as going “too far”. Never mind that when the manic pixie character carried on this torrid love affair it was seen as an empowering matter and the main character looked upon in awe. But now, we are supposed to believe this was the breaking point of a character we don’t really know much about. Because this character played a passive role in her own story, it is hard to know why this was the breaking point. Why this moment and not another? Is it the public humiliation? Is it the betrayal of a mentor? Why did this moment happen at all? Was she the driver of this story or was her character so passive it was more through persuasion? We just don’t know.

But, once the setting changes from New York city back to the suburbs the mood of the book slightly changes. At least we get the perspective of Vivian and we can start familiarizes ourselves with what she wants (finally! After finishing nearly half the book). But even then, I cannot tell you much about Vivian and what are her thoughts, motivations, and reasoning and what exactly made her so interested in the life they were searching for. This is an example of telling, not showing. Each time we start to delve into Vivian’s life, it is through a series of quick montages of events that more describe who she was with than what she thought of the situation. We were told this life was thrilling and perhaps shown in a few passing paragraphs of fun nights out, but we never got a chance to connect with Vivian’s life and by the time Vivian’s conflict occurred, I had to ask myself, did I care? The answer, a sad no. I was less than invested when the story continued and I, quite frankly, wanted it to end.

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