City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls is certainly the most sugary book in Elizabeth Gilbert’s canon. A tumultuous coming-of-age novel, it follows Vivian, a nineteen-year-old college drop-out with very few prospects and an entitled disposition. She is shipped off to her Aunt Peg, the black sheep of the family, to New York City’s Lily Playhouse, and for the first time in her life Vivian gets a taste of freedom.

She parties with showgirls, sleeps with countless men and enters every new day with a hangover. She is arrogant and completely lacking in any kind of self-awareness, but she is self-effacing and generous too.

However, when Vivian’s downfall inevitably comes, Gilbert switches the narrative away from a vaudevillian jaunt in the Big City, to a thoughtful inspection of women’s agency and liberation, and an exploration of shame and sexuality.

The novel is presented as an exceptionally long letter to a mysterious Angela, which is rather implausible given that the novel is almost five hundred pages long. But it is clever; there is a distinct difference between the Vivian the reader sees cavorting across the city, and the older, wiser woman telling her life story. It felt almost cinematic, like watching the story unfold while listening to an omniscient narrator voiced by Jessica Lange, someone with voice that is simultaneously warm, reassuring and a bit sexy.

“When I was younger, I had wanted to be at the very centre of all the action in New York, but I slowly came to realise that there is no one centre. The centre is everywhere – wherever people are living out their lives. It’s a city with a million centres. Somehow, that was even more magical to know.”

Vivian is part of the Silent Generation, which consists of those born before 1945 and who lived through World War II. Countless column inches, web articles and podcast episodes have been devoted to talking about the differences between generations, but Gilbert shines a refreshing light on this tired debate.

Baby Boomers hate Millennials because they are entitled and selfish, and Millennials hate Baby Boomers because they are entitled and selfish, just in different ways. We are all jealous of Generation Z for their self-assuredness, but will also say quite sincerely I’m glad I’m not growing up these days.

However, Gilbert suggests that these are differences that come with age, and if we all met in our youth, perhaps we would not be so different at all. As the saying goes, every generation thinks they are the first to discover sex. Add to that list: alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and most importantly, freedom.

Vivian sleeps with her friend’s husband in a moment of jealousy and misguided rage. The friend, a glamourous and extraordinary actor, puts her down in a way that would hit any young person, no matter their generation, with painful acuity:

“At last Edna said in a disturbingly mild tone, ‘The thing that you don’t understand about yourself Vivian, is that you’re not an interesting person. You are pretty, yes – but that’s only because you are young. The prettiness will soon fade. But you will never be an interesting person. I’m telling you this, Vivian, because I believe you’ve been labouring under the misconception that you are interesting, or that your life has significance. But you are not, and it doesn’t.”

Gilbert revels in Vivian’s sexual freedom, and it is a joy to read. Vivian sleeps around, not because she doesn’t respect herself, but because she has little respect for the men she sleeps with. She uses them to validate her, to fulfil her need to be seen as a woman who is confident, glamourous and desirable.

Only after the war, when the tired and broken soldiers return home, does Vivian begin to understand that she was sleeping with real people, men with dreams and emotions of their own, many of whom will likely have died. As they disembark at the pier, she wants to kiss every single one of them. It was a transformative, humanising moment; a profound remark on what it truly means to be young and alive.

As the novel progresses, Vivian’s practise of sex evolves. As an older woman, she has sex with deep consideration. She doesn’t seek out emotional attachments, she is only looking for the act itself. She is selective about the men she sleeps with and communicates with them openly that she won’t spend the night. This is not radical, but it is refreshing. It is an example of how casual, unattached sex that can be also be intimate, respectful and shameless.

“How could I explain that by ‘darkness’ I didn’t mean ‘sin’ or ‘evil’ – I only meant that there was a place within my imagination so fathomlessly deep that the light of the real world could never touch it. Nothing but sex had ever been able to reach it […] And when a man went to that darkest, secret place within me, I felt as though I had landed in the very beginning myself.”

The novel has a strong authorial voice that is also light, playful and witty. However, it is too long. A tighter edit was needed, especially as the second half began to drag; overall it could have been shorted by at least one hundred pages. With all the drama contained in the middle, the ending was slow and it petered out with less impact than it could have had, had Gilbert shown some restraint.

However, City of Girls is a celebration of youth and femininity that, while not revolutionary, is pleasurable to delve into. Youth is a time to make mistakes, and there was something mesmerising and cathartic about watching someone else stumble and fall, and come out bruised but whole on the other side.


City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (Bloomsbury, 2019)

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Time after Time by MyGel

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