City of Girls is not a cautionary tale, but rather a celebration of what happens when women cease to be cautious, writes Scarlett Cayford.
I’ve loved Liz Gilbert for a while now. It wasn’t Eat, Pray, Love that won me over, though I have read it a multitude of times as it was one of the only English-language books left in my flat when I moved to Japan, and I found her descriptions of pizza highly comforting. Rather, it was The Signature of All Things, an incredibly detailed, almost scientific exploration into the sexual passions and pains of Alma, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Philadelphia in 1800, that converted me to her particularly feminist fiction.
The Signature of All Things won some prizes but, to my mind, didn’t receive nearly the accolades it deserved. It occupies the literary canon (and a space in my brain) previously filled only with the likes of Jean M. Auel, whose lengthy, filthy depictions of the caveman era hooked me in as a teenager as only the combination of world-building, ecology and erotica can do. Gilbert is an author capable of constructing not only personality, but places and time, and reading this work was akin to sticking my head through the looking glass, briefly, perfectly. It is a rare author who can paint their protagonist not merely as a snapshot, but as an evolution, which is exactly how we get to experience Vivian Morris, a vivacious and vacuous nineteen-year-old arriving in New York in 1940 with a clean slate and an empty head.
Written in first-person past from 2010, Vivian (who is as different from The Signature of All Thing’s Alma as it is possible for a person to be) recants her experience to a mysterious “Angela” in the style of a frothy teen diary. The style takes some getting used to – “Angela” is drawn into the text frequently, without introduction, and more than once I had the sensation of being trapped in the bathroom of a bar by a stranger with dilated pupils and exaggerated arm movements telling a shaggy-dog story I’d expressed no interest in hearing. Vivian is obstreperous, naive, vain, ignorant, exhausting, asinine and completely adorable.
Newly-expelled from Vassar – on account of having attended no classes and expressed no interest in education – Vivian is foisted by her backwater family on her estranged aunt Peg, who owns a rundown playhouse on the dimly-lit streets of pre-war Manhattan. Wide-eyed Vivian quickly becomes a favourite of the showgirls in residence, owing to her preternatural skill with a sewing machine, and embeds herself into a new nighttime existence, revolving around applause, cocktails and plenty of sex. The novel takes its name from the play Peg and her team write and debut as Hitler begins his march – a ribald, bold piece of musical theatre about a bordello, which digs the Lily Playhouse of ignominy and thrusts its main players into the spotlight.
There are many characters here worth taking time to enjoy. Celia, the most talented and beautiful of the dancers, who takes Vivian under her arm and thrusts her into nightclub life. Olive, her aunt Peg’s partner (and somewhat-secret lover), harridan and stick-in-the-mud who deals with the majority of scrapes her employees find themselves in. And Edna Parker Watson, a famous British actress fleeing the bombs of London and taking up residence on the Lily Playhouse stage, whose fashion and foibles quickly entrance Vivian. It will come as no surprise that they are all women: as the name suggests, this novel is a love-letter to women, to their quirks and stylings and difficulties and relationships; to their progression through life and age, and to the fact that for a girl to become a woman, she must often endure, rather than merely experience, life.
For all that, Vivian takes a very long time to become the heroine of her own story. Rather, she is the epitome of an unreliable protagonist, experiencing her induction into New York City and working life through a series of breathless expostulations rather than any real rumination. Vivian embodies careless youth as she tosses aside her virginity and begins a flagrant sexual exploration of her new life. Her first sexual encounter is with a doctor (later revealed to be a vet) who, though married, often pays his way through the willing showgirl throng.
“Vivian,” he said, “I’ve decided that the more quickly I enter, the better it will be for you. In this case, I believe it is better not to move by degrees. Hold tight, for now I shall penetrate you.”
Thus he said it, and thus he did it.”
As a reader, we are more often subject to whimsical depictions of first times – the pain, or the excitement, or the fantasy. Vivian’s matter-of-fact paid-for deflowering by a gentleman who makes his living neutering puppies gives us a hint of the humour that always underwrites Gilbert’s prose.
“In our defense, Celia and I didn’t have sex with all the men we met that summer. But we did have sex with most of them.”
Sex is a thread that ties much of Vivian’s experience with New York, and our experience with her, together. Were it not for her passionate interest in intercourse, she might have trod a different path, embedding within the playhouse as a seamstress, rather than occupying the beds of the better part of the drunken denizens of the city (and the book would have been rather more boring for it). As it is, she follows her passions around the city, often admitting to the dangerous situations this places her in, but never suggesting that her horizontal activities made her any more unsavoury than the drinking and the dancing that she also enjoys. In City of Girls, sexual freedom, fashion and female friendship are thrust into centre stage. The depictions of sex are frequent, always funny, coloured with Vivian’s light and shamefree narrative – and it isn’t until the cataclysmic event of the novel, which coincides with the beginning of the war for America, that her frivolous lifestyle begins to unravel.
City of Girls is not a cautionary tale, but rather a celebration of what happens when women cease to be cautious – with their clothes, with their creative ambition, with their hearts and bodies and each other. It is a deconstruction of decadence unfolding on a cheap stage, lit with bright lights, where caricatures endure only as long as the script holds out. Elizabeth Gilbert has created in Vivian a narrator as unreliable as a drunken promise made by a man in an expensive suit, and builds a city around her that hums with detail. Prepare to fall fully in love with 1940’s New York, and to become one of those terribly annoying people who sighs and declares themselves to have been born in the wrong era.
There is something tremendously satisfying about occupying the brain of a protagonist from childhood through adulthood. You learn with them; loathe, and then love them. You come to know how they think and feel and, by the end, you have their history knotted through you so that turning the final page feels like laying flowers at a gravestone. Vivian flits into your life as a frothy and fanciful fiction, and departs as a dear best friend. I might not have been as fully enraptured by City of Girls as I was by The Signature of All Things but that is ultimately like trying to decide upon a favourite sister. I gulped both down like champagne on a humid night.
City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert (Bloomsbury, $34.99) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.