City of Girls was my first historical fiction read by Elizabeth Gilbert. (I read Eat, Pray, Love a long time ago). I had seen City of Girls around and wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was interested enough to buy a second-hand copy from a book sale. City of Girls is set mostly in 1940s New York. It’s protagonist, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris, has just been kicked out of school and is banished by her parents to New York to stay with her Aunt Peg.
Aunt Peg runs a crumbling theatre which puts on cheap musical plays for its working class neighbourhood. It’s not up to Broadway standards, but the shows are entertaining with singing, dancing, a bit of a plot, and beautiful showgirls. Vivian is captivated by her new environment and easily swayed by the showgirl’s high life of drinking out every night and going home with no-good men.
Vivian doesn’t have any goals or dreams apart from enjoying life. But she does have talent. She can create beautiful clothing with her sewing machine. This skill makes her indispensable as the costume designer at the theatre, working on a shoestring budget. While life seems one dazzling party after the next, World War II will soon hit America. And there will be consequences for Vivian’s wild behaviour.
City of Girls was a captivating historical fiction read. It’s told through the eyes of Vivian as an old woman looking back on her life and telling her story to a woman named Angela. She is very much an observer of the dazzling people around her and at times not the star of her own story. The book also jumps ahead to Vivian’s life as she gets older. My favourite part was at the start of her journey. My only problem with this book was that I felt it was a bit rushed towards the end as it glossed over the later years of Vivian’s life.
As a reader, you get to see Vivian grow and mature. She takes an unexpected path in life, but one that makes her happy. I really loved her character’s voice throughout the novel. She’s a very flawed character and she knows it. As a reader you may not particularly like Vivian, but you want to know her story nonetheless. But at least she lives life on her own terms. I enjoyed all the descriptions of the New York theatre scene in the 1940s and all the fashion. Many of the other characters were fascinating, particularly Vivian’s Aunt Peg.
City of Girls won’t appeal to everyone but I really enjoyed it.
Verdict: A dazzling historical fiction novel well worth reading.