City of Girls is imbued with sex and death. These are Heavy Topics worthy of Heavy Novels, yet, Gilbert’s latest goes down like a beach read. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote City of Girls shortly after losing her best friend-turned-romantic-partner Rayya Elias to cancer, making the books’ levity more surprising. She had already begun her research, but Gilbert lost interest in writing such an “effervescent” novel after Elias’ diagnosis.
Elizabeth Gilbert has a history of laying herself bare. She detailed the end of her first marriage, her personal reawakening, and the blossoming of her second marriage in Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert shared the change of her and Rayya’s relationship. I assumed Elizabeth would share details of her grief in a nonfiction format. While fiction, City of Girls is a beautiful guide about grief. Not about overcoming grief, but existing with it. Gilbert’s characters grieve (and recover from) the deaths of love affairs and loved ones, careers and reputations, and a time and place that will never exist again.
City of Girls
With an intensively researched America-at-midcentury backdrop and lyrical prose, Elizabeth Gilbert presents the life, loves, and lessons of Vivian Moss. At 20 years old, the main character is doe-eyed, privileged, and recently expelled from Vassar College. Her blue blood parents, busy tending horses and railing against Roosevelt (did I mention it’s 1940?), are at a loss. It is decided that their wayward daughter will be sent to live with Aunt Peg in New York City. Aunt Peg owns a theatre—a gloriously rundown theatre—that puts on light, slightly garish penny shows for working-class folk.
Vivian arrives “so freshly hatched there was practically yolk” in her hair. She waits for hours at Grand Central Station, no one there to retrieve her. This is a harbinger of things to come. Vivian Moss is now in the company of theater people. Her new circle is exciting, full of life, mostly drunk, and disorganized. Vivian throws her lot in with a manipulative slip of a showgirl, Celia. Soon, the two vivacious women are sailing the currents of New York City nightlife: drinking, dancing, and messing around until the morning hours.
We watch Vivian navigate this passage of her life with bated breath. Let’s just say—her fall isn’t so graceful. Then we get to watch her get back up. Vivian Moss flourishes, successfully and on her terms. As she says, looking back from the age of 98, “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.”
The Fallen Woman
Elizabeth Gilbert stated she wanted to write about a promiscuous woman (“having been one, having known a lot of them”). A woman—unlike Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Glenn Close in every movie—whose eroticism didn’t bring ruin. As Elizabeth told Marie Claire, “That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences [for her character’s sexual choices], and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t learning and growing and even pain. It just means that they don’t end up ruined, because that tends to be what the story has always been, and I’ve been frustrated with that as a female reader.”
When pain does visit Vivian, it comes without slut-shaming. Gilbert mentions the hole that Vivian has dug herself, but focuses more on the getting out. In doing so, as in all of her writings, Gilbert hopes to normalize. She hopes that showing the arc of Vivian’s life will inspire readers to maintain perspective when regarding our own shameful experiences.
What Did That 90+ Year Old Say?!
Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed former New York City showgirls in her extensive research. She soon stumbled upon Norma Amigo. Norma was a New York City dancer, Ziegfried girl, and former girlfriend of John Wayne. She captivated Gilbert with her stories, even shocking her at times. The author thought she would have a hard time getting elderly women to discuss their sex lives, but Gilbert couldn’t get Amigo to stop talking about it.
At one point Elizabeth asked Norma why she had never married. Norma replied, “Why would I want to f— one man for sixty years?”
City of Girls is a pure romp of a book, replete with glamorous women in glamorous clothes, musical theatre, and raucous sex. But don’t write off City of Girls as solely a dirty book or a bit of fluff. This book burgeons with beautiful prose and masterful characterization.
What are some of your favorite historical fiction novels? Let me know in the comments. Share this article so more people know about Norma Amigo.
Check out my last book review here.