It is the summer of 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York with her suitcase and sewing machine, exiled by her despairing parents. Although her quicksilver talents with a needle and commitment to mastering the perfect hair roll have been deemed insufficient for her to pass her sophomore year of Vassar, she soon finds gainful employment as the self-appointed seamstress at the Lily Playhouse, her Aunt Peg’s charmingly disreputable Manhattan revue theatre. There, Vivian becomes the toast of the showgirls, transforming the trash and tinsel only fit for the cheap seats into creations for goddesses.
Exile in New York is no exile at all: here in this strange wartime city of girls, Vivian and her girlfriends mean to be free, to drink the heady highball of life itself to the last drop. But there are hard lessons to be learned, and bitterly regrettable mistakes to be made. Vivian sees that to live the life she wants, she must live many lives, ceaselessly and ingeniously making them new.
“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,” she confides. And so Vivian sets forth her story, and that of the women around her – women who have lived as they truly are, out of step with a century that could never quite keep up with them.
A work colleague leant me City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert the day before lockdown started here in the UK. We’d just both been furloughed and she had made the decision to go and be with family for the foreseeable, while I was staying in the house share where I currently live. My family are shielding (high risk), and since I had until a few days previously been going into the office and I live with six other people (it has now dwindled to three as everyone jumped ship to their respective families), not to mention the various trains and taxis I’d have to take in order to get home, staying put seemed like the best idea at the time.
That being the case, she said, City of Girls was going to be exactly the lift that I needed.
She was right.
I had never read any of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fiction. I love her non-fiction. I know it’s not cool to like Eat Pray Love but despite all the God stuff, which I could never really get behind, I loved the writing. Big Magic, her book about creativity is always an inspiring read, and the short lived podcast that accompanied it was one of my favourites.
A few years back I read that she had left her husband – the guy at the end of Eat Pray Love – for her dying best friend, another woman, who she had realised she was in love with when suddenly faced with the possibility of losing her. It was and is the saddest story – Rayya, the woman in question, passed away a year or so ago now – and it was from this devastating loss that City of Girls was born.
Now – and I don’t mean this to sound as glib as it does – I don’t think I was alone in expecting a heart breaking memoir of love and loss to come out of this experience. But that is not what Elizabeth Gilbert produced. Instead, she wrote City of Girls to feel better. When your day to day is making it through the depths of all that unimaginable grief, you need a place to escape to, right? For Liz, that turned out to be 1940s Manhattan – and it is excellent.
City of Girls is a story that begins with a question. In 2010 a now elderly Vivian receives a letter from the daughter of a friend with a single request. She wants to know “what were you to my father?”
What follows is Vivian’s account of her life from the age of 19, when she arrived in New York. A college drop-out and a disappointment to her parents, she is shipped off to NY to begin her life as an independent woman (sort of. Her parents still pretty much pay for everything) – and that is when things start to get interesting.
There are people in life who the second you meet them you know they are going to be important, people who change you and drag your entire life in a direction you previously hadn’t considered for yourself. They might not be around forever – in fact, they almost certainly won’t – but they will leave a mark. Then there are also those that sneak up on you, people who perhaps existed on the periphery of your daily experience for long enough that you hadn’t considered them, but who slowly creep into your bones until one day you look up and realise they are the most important people in your life. In City of Girls, Liz Gilbert explores this particular phenomenon in a way I’ve never experienced before. It’s because the book is so expansive, yes – it begins in the 1940s and ends in 2010 – but it’s much more about the seeds expertly sown in the earlier chapters that don’t blossom until much, much later on. So much later on you didn’t even realise they were seeds in the first place.
Which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
It is a book of two halves – the early, crazy years of sex, partying, rising fame and all the drama that accompanies it. Then the story gets split – Vivian makes a terrible mistake, one that will flip the entire narrative of her life and ultimately send her down a path that is just revelatory to read. The long road to the eventual answer of that initial question is a story of how to build a life – an adventurous, devastating life of entirely Viv’s own.
When I eventually go back to work and have to return City of Girls to its owner I will be purchasing my own copy. It’s the sort of story you want to keep around.