Never take rides from strangers, counsel the wise elders. By this time, though, author Elizabeth Gilbert is no stranger, but a friend eager to take readers along on one joyous ride after another — fiction, memoirs, whatever moves her. City of Girls, Gilbert’s latest novel, has the faint whiff of the expected, beginning with the almost obligatory use of the word “girls” in a title, a trend that shows no sign of abating. What’s next? The Girlish Girls of a Girl’s Girlhood?
Still, Gilbert pulls off a breezy, entertaining read — and really, something better: a lively, effervescent, and sexy portrait of a woman living in a golden time. We just have to get past the somewhat ponderous, overly familiar framing device — an ancient but still loquacious crone who looks back on her life and tells the tale to an eager listener. Eat, pray, gab. Here, Vivian Morris recounts her life story to Angela, the daughter of one of her great loves. The kinship between them is at best once removed, but the auditor dearly wants the skinny on her dad’s glory days.
After she’s ejected from Vassar College in 1940 at age 19, Vivian takes stock of her personal resources. There are two things she’s good at: sewing and sex. Where oh where could she possibly put such talents to use? The best times in New York City are always supposed to be just before you got there, but from school in Poughkeepsie Vivian heads down the Hudson and lands in the middle of a sockdolager theater scene. The offbeat Lily Playhouse is a neighborhood joint, a magnet for the odd and colorful. Gilbert rounds up the usual suspects, who in this case are more suspect than usual. They include Vivian’s Aunt Peg, Peg’s dour girlfriend Olive, Peg’s husband, the bon vivant Billie, the impeccably styled actress Edna, and the showgirl extraordinaire Celia. Vivian takes her place as seamstress to the cast, stitching the crew together as they put up their wildly popular show, City of Girls.
Sewing, yes, but what was that other skill you mentioned, Viv? She was always, as she delicately puts it, “susceptible.” Or, more broadly: “Drunk, pinwheel-eyed, briny-blooded, brainless, weightless — Celia and I spun through New York City that summer on currents of pure electricity. Instead of walking, we rocketed.” Vivian watches Joe Louis train, hears Billie Holiday sing, quaffs champagne at the Stork Club, and does an awful lot of what, in the cant of the day, was referred to as canoodling. New York City, now and forever, is the city of girls.
One wrong step, one racy photo, and this girl’s life boomerangs. She’s back to her small town with her staid parents, bum-rushed into an engagement to a pleasant stiff. The book falters a bit, it being hard to keep them down on the farm when they’ve already seen et cetera. Vivian’s mature life features a bit too much gravitas, since this is where Angela’s dear progenitor enters into the picture.
Like maraschino cherries in a Manhattan, Gilbert drops in sharp descriptions throughout the story. Describing a theatrical show at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that Vivian produces, the author has her character toss off this line: “And a ten-year-old girl with chapped knees sang the National Anthem, wearing a dress that was not going to fit her next summer, and was not keeping her warm right now.” Vivian’s coming of age is given a slight flavor of Jack Kerouac: “There was no focus; there was just a constant search for the vivid.”
Passion, Gilbert never tires of informing us, that’s the stuff of life. Not money, not the Darwinian struggle for survival, certainly not the family you are born with — passion is our raison d’etre. It’s what makes us feel we are rocketing through the streets of New York City during the best days of our lives.
Jean Zimmerman’s latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.