Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for this review copy of City of Girls. Here is my honest review.
The novel follows Vivian, a young American woman from a privileged background that is sent to live with her aunt in New-York after having been expelled from Vassar College, in the summer of 1940. Her aunt runs a theatre, the Lily, and there she meets a gallery of people that will change her life, opening to her a world of glamour and pleasure; teaching her a sense of freedom she had never dreamt of. The novel is written as a long letter that an elderly Vivians writes in answer to a mysterious Angela, who asked about the nature of Vivian’s relationship with her late father. The answer to that question is not given until very late in the novel, but in the meantime, there are enough things going on to keep the reader fully occupied.
“I was not quite as dumb as my grades made me look, but apparently it really doesn’t help if you don’t study.”
The novel starts rather slowly as Vivian finds her footing, and embarks on frivolous adventures with the showgirls of the theatre. Then it picks up pace and I particularly enjoyed reading about the preparation of the show that gives its name to the novel : the arrival of the mesmerizing Edna, the excitement of the rehearsals, the suspense about whether the show will be successful or not, and the drama that culminates it all.
“Mine was a liturgy of excuses, contained within a flood of pathetic apologies. There were pleas to be forgiven. There werer grasping offerings to make things better. But there was also cowardliness and denial. […]Finally I stuttered to a stop, coughing up my last bit of verbal trash.”
The drama in question marks a sharp turn of Vivian’s journey, and the beginning of a more mature, reflexive part of her story. We quit the franctic but fluffly universe of the Lily to enter the non-less frantic but grimer war era. And Vivian grows. After the war, she finally seems to have found herself. Working as a wedding dress creator, having formed true friendships. Until a figure from her past reappears and turns her world upside down again, although quite gently. After having sought and found pleasure with a swarm of men, she is offered a chance at deep, throbbing love. Here is the most profound and moving part of the story.
Vivian’s passion for sewing and fashion is threaded throughout the novel. I loved the descriptions of outfits and costumes. She really seems to have wands for hands. Would have loved to see her creations in real life!
The writing is straightforward, without flourish. It fits the character and the letter context. The real selling points here are the plot and characters. It is a novel that you read easily, that sucks you in its is at times cheerful, at times melancholic rythm. You develop an intimate connection with Vivian, and although you may not relate to all her choices, she becomes a solid presence. The whole gallery of characters surrounding her forms a vivid tapestry. I am not sure however, how plausible a letter it is, as it digresses a lot from the answer it is supposed to give. But hey, it makes for a nice story.
“Lucky is the soul whose onbly troubles are self-inflicted.”
The light and grave mingle, all very well balanced. Vivian’s story sometimes squeezes your heart a bit without crushing it, mostly embarking you on a whirlwind of adventure, sketching the portrait of a fast-changing New-York along the way. It is also an homage to independent, strong headed women who dared to live their lives as they wanted, to seek pleasure and not be ashamed of it. Surprisingly though, although pleasure is a central theme here, and sex is often mentioned, the novel never gets the sensual tone one could have expected.
“Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.”
Conclusion : Read it if you are looking for a light and engrossing summer read. A coming of age journey where the hardships are compensated by a high dose of fun and optimism. Gilbert stated that she wanted to write “a book that goes down like champain cocktail”. And I think she did just that : it is agreable and fizzy, sometimes a bit rough, it flows easily, leaves you a bit dizzy. But the effect does not last and you soon recover, feeling invigorated, ready to take on the next adventure.
Please note that all the quotes featured here are taken from a proof copy of the novel, and may be subject to change in the definitive version.
City of Girls
Out 4 June 2019