City of Girls, from Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, is the Platonic ideal of a summer book. You don’t read it so much as sink luxuriously into it, like you’re diving into a clean and icy cold swimming pool on a hot day. Turning its pages, you can almost smell the warm cement sidewalks and the chlorine.
City of Girls is the story of Vivian Morris, who comes to New York City in 1940 as a 19-year-old Vassar dropout. Vivian is wealthy and WASPy and sheltered, but when she moves in with her Aunt Peg, worlds open before her.
Peg runs a dilapidated theater in Times Square called the Lily, where she puts on “working-class entertainment for working-class people”: hack musicals thrown together in a matter of days. They exist mostly as an excuse “for lovers to reunite and for dancers to show off their legs.” The Lily is peopled with down-on-their-luck artists and with the most beautiful showgirls in New York City, and Vivian — who thinks “there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues” that are “designed to make people happy” — believes she has found her people.
Sharing a room above the theater with the most beautiful of all the showgirls, Vivian begins her glamorous New York City existence: making costumes for the shows during the day and partying with the dancers every night. But while Vivian finds the freedom and decadence of her new life exhilarating, she’s also becoming more and more selfish, and we can tell from the mounting tension of her narration that she’ll soon make a terrible mistake.
Gilbert’s prose has an inject-it-into-my-veins immediacy: It’s not so lyrical that it calls attention to itself, but the rhythm of each sentence is so precise that you absorb it before you even realize what’s happening. And Vivian is a fantastic narrator, self-aware and funny and just cynical enough. She’s telling us her story as an old woman, and she looks back at her 19-year-old self with refreshingly clear-eyed affection.
“If it sounds like I’m about to tell you the story of an ugly duckling who goes to the city and finds out that she’s pretty, after all — don’t worry, this is not that story,” she tells us early on. “I was always pretty. … What’s more, I always knew it.”
Perhaps Vivian’s most endearing trait is how much she looks up to the women around her. Even in hindsight, she describes them all with wide-eyed admiration: artistic Aunt Peg, Celia the glamorous showgirl, Olive the secretary who keeps the theater running. The most scene-stealing of all is Edna, the great stage actress who spends a few months slumming it at the Lily and whose dashing menswear-inspired wardrobe is a character all of its own. (Gilbert devotes seven full pages to going through Edna’s closet piece by piece, and every single word is a delight.) And that’s why you feel all of Vivian’s horror and remorse when in her great mistake, she betrays Edna’s trust.
City of Girls is true to its name: It’s a novel about girlhood, about the relationships between women, about the women’s art form of fashion. And it’s a nostalgic love letter to the New York City of the 1940s, which in Vivian’s narration is equal parts glitzy and grimy.
“There will never be another New York like that one,” Vivian tells us. “This is a city that gets born anew in the fresh eyes of every young person who arrives here for the first time. So that city, that place — newly created for my eyes only — will never exist again. It is preserved forever in my memory like an orchid trapped in a paperweight.”
Vivian’s nostalgia suffuses City of Girls and is what gives it its joyous energy. This book is a pure and uncomplicated pleasure to read, and it begs to be guzzled down like chilled rosé, sweet and summery and just a little intoxicating.