People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong. Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is to waste it. So do the right thing with your youth, Vivian—squander it.Elizabeth Gilbert, City of Girls
City of Girls is the story of Vivian Morris, a nineteen-year-old wannabe seamstress right after she drops out of college. Her parents, unsure what to do with their free spirited daughter, send her to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg. Peg and her partner, Olive, own a playhouse called The Lily. As Vivian settles into her life in Manhattan, she meets a cast of colorful characters. She starts working as a costume designer at the playhouse, getting to work with some of the most famous actors and actresses of the 1940’s. Quickly, she befriends a showgirl named Celia Ray who introduces her to the joys of New York’s nightlife. As Vivian’s exploits begin to catch up with her, Vivian loses control of her life, resulting in a mistake that alters the course of her life.
City of Girls was a truly entertaining read. Vivian – who at the beginning of the novel is eighty-nine years old – is writing a letter to the daughter of the love of her life. The structure of the novel is in a letter format. It’s beautifully done and gives the reader the feeling that Vivian is sitting in front of you and telling you the story. The novel has a relaxed tone to it and Gilbert takes great care to insert the recipient of the letter (Angela)’s name in the novel many times. The letter structure is important to the story because this is very clearly Vivian’s reminiscing on her life. While it might feel a bit unrealistic to have a letter as long as Vivian’s, I think that it only added to the relaxed, unstructured feeling that mirrors Vivian’s own life.
In terms of characterization, Vivian is substantially harder on herself than a narrator would be. She very clearly is reciting this story in hindsight and very clearly exploits her own mistakes. It almost feels like this letter is Vivian coming to terms with who she is and her own experiences. I also found that despite having a revolving door of side characters that seem to enhance Vivian’s characterization, there is enough time for each character to successfully develop.
The backdrop of this story is the years leading up to the United State’s involvement in WWII. But, the war is not a large focus of the story. While much of Vivian’s story takes place over 1940 and 1941, she makes a point to note that she was quite oblivious to the war. Her life spans interesting times in history, but she remains completely unaware of the events that shaped her teen years. While I think that most people who were nineteen around the beginning of WWII were actually much more aware of the time, Vivian almost seems like she’s an outsider looking in. She was never directly impacted by the war during the war. She really only saw the aftermath when she met Frank. In terms of relationships, Vivian is very honest about her sexual liaisons. She doesn’t like to sugarcoat the fact that she was rarely in a committed relationship and had a very casual outlook on life for the conservative time period. I think this contributes to the feeling that Vivian is a pioneer of ideals that would soon become the norm in society.
As Vivian gets older, the reader sees how she refuses to conform to a traditional family. While family is an overarching theme in the novel, Vivian’s own sense of family is shaped by her parents and brother. She learns that a traditional family, where the members are bound by blood isn’t necessarily better than a family that is built by shared experiences. She becomes closer with her Aunt Peg and the workers of the Lily Playhouse than she ever was with her family. When it would be traditionally time for her to settle down and have her own family, she instead chooses to be a part of another family. This family isn’t bound by romantic love or blood ties, but rather by platonic love and memories. It’s a beautiful theme throughout the book.
Overall, I think that this book is a fun read. I think that it demonstrates that while romance between two people has become a staple in many historical stories, there aren’t many books that focus on loving yourself. Vivian’s character furthers the notion that life isn’t meant to follow a linear structure and that often a lifestyle that might seem like it’s odd can eventually become the norm. Reading a novel like this especially with all the current events going on can feel like a beacon of hope because it depicts how much things have changed over the decades. It may seem like a fluff read, but much can be learned from reading about others who have lived in the past. While it’s not a biography, it certainly reads like one and almost makes you wish that you were a showgirl in the 1940’s.