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City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

“I hope you’re having a good time, too. 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.”

New York in the 1940s. While the American society is slowly preparing to enter the war, 19 year old Vivian Morris enters the city’s magical theatre world. Having just been thrown out of college, the teenager is sent to live at her eccentric aunt Peg’s charming but fading theatre the Lily Playhouse. From the first night in New York onwards the reader joins the girl as she gets swept away by the glamour of the theatre world, the excitement of the city, the adventures of youth. At the Lily, Vivian encounters sparkling and unconventional characters: fun-loving showgirls, British stage phenomena, young handsome actors – with and without talent, unreliable playwrights, and the stern manager trying to keep the show running and the protagonists alive. With her talent at the sewing machine, Vivian quickly finds herself as the new chief costume designer and at the heart of all the fun. She spends her days dressing the actors and her nights undressing the men she meets in Manhattan’s bars. She finds that the life waiting for her as the daughter to wealthy parents – a life of marriage, children, country clubs – is the opposite of what she wants. Vivian finds her independence, she seeks freedom and wants to enjoy life to the fullest. Life in New York city is fast among music, shows and alcohol until it comes to a sudden halt when the young girl makes a serious mistake.

It will take her years to understand the significance of what has happened. But the narrator – 95-year old Vivian remembering her life in a letter – can see how the events will have shaped the course of her life, her future experiences and relationships. The older woman is able to look kindly at her youth, both the pleasures and regrets. She fills these pages with a wisdom about human desires, about overcoming insecurity and finding inner peace. All this Gilbert manages to convey undramatically without drifting into the corny and clichéd.

"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."

City of Girls explores female sexuality and promiscuity. Gilbert says she aimed to write a book about “promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires,” and while I think this goal is important, the extent to which Vivian’s sexual adventures are recounted just doesn’t seem to match the framing story. Sure, some of these scenes are great. The story of how the young girl has her virginity “expunged” is laugh-out-loud funny. But while the scenes of glamorous New York nightlife and youthful pleasure are mostly captivating, I think they could have been edited down a fair bit.

It took me a good hundred pages to get into this novel. Here, it wasn’t so much the story which started slow, but the language which hindered me. This is usually a sign that I won’t like a book, but this one grew on me. Initially, Gilbert’s language seemed bit too construed, her writing not very natural. But after a little while characters and language found their way towards each other and reading became increasingly pleasurable. While the story had moments that might seem silly and predictable it was always filled with a disarmingly kind view on life, youth, and humans with all their quirks and flaws. It’s always wonderful to read strong and scintillating female characters, and there were a whole bunch of those in this book – a whole city of girls, one might say. I have to admit it bothered me slightly that the framing story just did not seem to fit the narrative, but apart from that City of Girls was a thoroughly enjoyable and often spectacularly humorous world to dive into.

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