City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: A review
“After a certain age, time just drizzles down upon your head like rain in the month of March: you’re always surprised at how much of it can accumulate, and how fast.” (From City of Girls.)When we first meet Vivian Morris, a considerable amount of time has drizzled down upon her head. She is in her nineties and she is in the process of giving an account of her life to someone named Angela. Who is Angela? We have no idea and don't learn the answer to that question until near the end of the novel. We only know that she is a woman who has asked Vivian for an explanation of her relationship with the woman's father. To give that explanation, Vivian goes back to what is the beginning for her: New York in 1940 when she was 19.
Nineteen-year-old Vivian had proved to be a great disappointment to her parents. She had flunked out of Vassar, having never attended her classes and failed every one. Sent home in disgrace, her parents soon weary of her and she is sent off to New York to live with her Aunt Peg. This is fortuitous for Vivian. Aunt Peg is a generous and accepting person who has no expectations of Vivian and so is not disappointed by her. She owns and runs a small flamboyant but crumbling theater called the Lily Playhouse where she puts on shows for the locals featuring showgirls, dancers, and a whole cast of unconventional and charismatic characters. Vivian is entranced.
Maybe Vivian couldn't make it at Vassar, but she is not without talent. In fact, she has a skill that is very valuable to a theater company; she is a talented seamstress, having been taught by her grandmother. She quickly finds her niche with Aunt Peg's doughty troupe and becomes a favorite with the showgirls for whom she fashions fabulous costumes.
When the group learns to their astonishment that Vivian is still a virgin, they make a plan for her deflowering. That results in the funniest scene in the entire book which has plenty of moments of humor. But the deflowering of Vivian certainly stands as the comic high point.
Following that Vivian enters full tilt into the reckless lifestyle of the showgirls, a life of sex, booze, and nightclubs. She utterly abandons herself to this life but is finally brought up short when she finds herself in a menage a trois with a showgirl friend and the husband of the star of the theater's hit show, "City of Girls". Unfortunately, Walter Winchell has pictures! Once again, Vivian goes home in disgrace.
This time, she does make an effort to fit into the life that her parents expect of her, but it's hopeless, and anyway, Aunt Peg needs her costume-maker back. America is now in the war and Aunt Peg has a contract with the military to provide entertainment.
Eventually, after the war, Vivian and a friend open a bridal boutique and this woman who never marries and never wants to marry makes a successful career of fashioning bride's dresses. And all this time, she has a constant stream of lovers, none of whom seem to make a particularly vivid impression on her. The important relationships in her life are her friendships with women and with Aunt Peg and her lesbian partner Olive (a wonderful character!) who become the loving and accepting parents for Vivian that she didn't have growing up.
And then she meets - actually re-meets - the man who will be the love of her life. He is an injured war veteran who was burned over 60% of his body and bears those scars, plus he suffers from PTSD and cannot bear to be touched. Ironic that this woman for whom sex is such an important component of her life falls in love with a man with whom she will never be able to have a sexual relationship. And yet her love for him and his for her is strong and deep.
There were parts of this book that irritated me, but ultimately the story of a solitary and strong, if conflicted, woman who chose to live her life as she saw fit outside the norms that were expected of women in her era proved to be a very worthwhile read. It's not just about licentious sexual freedom, it's about an independent woman making a life for herself in the manner that she chose and doing the best that she can to live an ethical life without hypocrisy. And that's a worthy goal that many of us have for ourselves.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars