I wish Elizabeth Gilbert had never written Eat, Pray, Love. Because despite what you thought of that memoir—whether you loved it as a celebration of female strength and self-discovery or loathed it as the self-indulgent journey of a spoiled brat (I’ve actually heard her accused of single-handedly ruining Bali)—it will forevermore be attached to her name. She’s actually one hell of a writer with a multi-faceted accomplished body of work.
Go back and read The Last American Man, written two years before Eat, Pray, etc., the true story of Eustace Conway, who at 17 left suburbia and went back to nature in the Appalachian mountains. A complex, tortured individual, Conway becomes a missionary for the idea of leaving the materialistic world behind, a man Gilbert describes as “a cross between Davy Crockett and Henry David Thoreau.” It’s a fascinating, sensitively rendered portrait.
Or The Signature of All Things. The fictional story of world renowned 19th-century botanist Alma Whitaker, the novel takes us around the world at a pivotal moment in science. You’ll never look at moss the same way again.
Now comes City of Girls, Gilbert’s new, highly entertaining romp of a book that stars Vivian Morris, Vassar dropout and aimless rich girl who arrives in New York City in 1940 and falls happily into her black sheep aunt’s world, which centers on a struggling theatre company. Vivian takes to the life of showgirls and night clubs (lots of booze and cigarettes) and promiscuous sex like the proverbial duck to water. And it’s all great, spirited fun until her scandalous behavior almost lands her in Walter Winchell’s column in a most unflattering way.
This is a novel replete with richly drawn characters—among them the aforementioned aunt, her globe-trotting, stare-fucking glamorous scoundrel of an ex-husband, an elegant British stage actress, the highly individualistic teenage daughter of a Jewish schmatte family, and a playboy from Hell’s Kitchen who’s highly skilled in the art of lovemaking
Gilbert is very funny. The hilarious scene where Vivian loses her virginity is especially refreshing in an age where so much young sex is portrayed as negative and traumatic. It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I read the introductory author’s note, wherein Gilbert announces her intention to write a book “about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires.” Mission accomplished.
Not only is her fast-moving plot highly engaging, she also writes clever song lyrics and authentic-sounding theatre reviews from actual critics of the day. City of Girls is a tonic for our dark, often depressing, highly serious age. It sometimes seems everything we do these days, what we eat, how we speak, how we comport ourselves in the world, is judged from some impeccable moral bench. Whatever happened to fun?
The word that kept coming to mind as I read this book is madcap. But it’s deeper than that and Gilbert closes the novel with a totally unexpected, unconventional and moving love story. It’s a tiny bit schmaltzy but by that point I didn’t care. I’d fallen in love with Vivian and her world. She’s a character I wanted to keep hanging out with even after the book came to an end.