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City of Girls

by Elizabeth Gilbert

GENRE: Mainstream Fiction, Historical Fiction

When Vivian Morris flunks out of college, she is sent to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg in New York City. Aunt Peg owns the theater Lily Playhouse, and Vivian is soon fully immersed in this bohemian lifestyle, eagerly sampling everything the exciting world of playacting has to offer. 89-year-old Vivian narrates her own story as she looks back on her life, adding a rich perspective to her wild escapades.

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Author Biography

Elizabeth Gilbert was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1969, and grew up on a small family Christmas tree farm. She attended New York University, where she studied political science by day and worked on her short stories by night. After college, she spent several years traveling around the country, working in bars, diners and ranches, collecting experiences to transform into fiction.

These explorations eventually formed the basis of her first book – a short story collection called Pilgrims, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, and which moved Annie Proulx to call her “a young writer of incandescent talent”.

During these early years in New York, she also worked as a journalist for such publications as Spin, GQ and The New York Times Magazine. She was a three-time finalist for The National Magazine Award, and an article she wrote in GQ about her experiences bartending on the Lower East Side eventually became the basis for the movie Coyote Ugly.

In 2000, Elizabeth published her first novel, Stern Men (a story of brutal territory wars between two remote fishing islands off the coast of Maine) which was a New York Times Notable Book. In 2002, Elizabeth published The Last American Man – the true story of the modern day woodsman Eustace Conway. This book, her first work of non-fiction, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Elizabeth is best known, however for her 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, which chronicled her journey alone around the world, looking for solace after a difficult divorce. The book was an international bestseller, translated into over thirty languages, with over 12 million copies sold worldwide. In 2010, Eat Pray Love was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. The book became so popular that Time Magazine named Elizabeth as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In 2010, Elizabeth published a follow-up to Eat Pray Love called Committed—a memoir which explored her ambivalent feelings about the institution of marriage. The book immediately became a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and was also received with warm critical praise. As Newsweek wrote, Committed “retains plenty of Gilbert’s comic ruefulness and wide-eyed wonder”, and NPR called the book “a rich brew of newfound insight and wisdom.”

Her 2013 novel The Signature of All Things is a sprawling tale of 19th century botanical exploration. O Magazine named it “the novel of a lifetime”, and the Wall Street Journal called it “the most ambitious and purely-imagined work of (Gilbert’s) twenty-year career.” The Signature of All Things was a New York Times Bestseller, and Janet Maslin called it “engrossing…vibrant and hot-blooded.” The novel was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New York Times, O Magazine, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The New Yorker.”

In 2015, she published Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear—a book that encapsulates the joyful spirit of adventure and permission that Elizabeth has always brought to her work and to her life.

Her latest novel is City of Girls — a rollicking, sexy tale of the New York City theater world during the 1940s.

Elizabeth divides her time between New York City, rural New Jersey, and everywhere else.  - Author's website

More titles by this author.



/* Starred Review */ Girls Do Want to Have Fun—and Equality. After Vivian Morris, far more interested in clothes than scholarship, flunks out of Vassar in 1940, her indifferent, well-to-do, conservative parents ship her off to Aunt Peg in Manhattan, who owns and runs a ragtag theater in Midtown. Pretty, naive, and ardently open to suggestion, Vivian finds herself in a chaotic, cash-poor, improvisational, hard-drinking household overseen by stubbornly pragmatic Olive, upon whom Peg relies in ways Vivian cannot imagine. Celia, a ravishing showgirl who loves nothing more than a wild night on the town, promptly initiates Vivian into her life of revelry and casual sex. Their friendship, escapades, and quandaries make for an effervescent pre-WWII variation on Sex in the City (with a nod toward Auntie Mame). Gilbert’s previous novel, The Signature of Things (2013), portrayed a nineteenth-century woman scientist who refused to be stymied by the sexism of her time. Here Gilbert writes against the traditional literary grain in which women are harshly punished for enjoying sexual freedom, though she adeptly camouflages her serious intent, which also embraces matters of race, class, and gay rights in a whirl of satin, lace, champagne bubbles, and smoke. And what keenly delicious fun Gilbert has bringing to life the struggling Lily Playhouse and its modest productions aimed at entertaining working-class audiences with larky song-and-dance numbers and leggy lovelies. Vivian’s sewing skills grant her full entry into this enthusiastic if makeshift enterprise, especially when the chic and gifted British actor Edna Parker Watson and her handsome young husband arrive. Their London home has been bombed to “matchsticks,” and they’re in desperate need of sanctuary and work. Peg takes them in and makes them the stars of the theater’s next production, City of Girls, a play Gilbert revels in creating, from song lyrics and costumes to opening-night reviews. Its improbable success changes everything for everyone involved, and not necessarily for the better. After barely surviving a scorching tabloid scandal—among the intriguing real-life characters Gilbert portrays is the infamous gossip columnist Walter Winchell—followed by wartime demands, Vivian comes into her own as a talented fashion entrepreneur. We learn about her many adventures in retrospect as Vivian, an octogenarian in 2010, vividly recounts her life of choice and independence with sly wit, piquant regrets, and hard-won wisdom. Vivian’s confident candor about women’s sexuality, including her own preference for sex free of emotional entanglements, is tonic and affirming; the surprising turn she takes to embrace love is deeply moving. Reading City of Girls is pure bliss, thanks to its spirited characters, crackling dialogue, rollicking yet affecting story lines, genuinely erotic scenes, and sexual intelligence, suspense, and incisive truths. Gilbert’s beguiling blend of comedy and gravitas brings to mind other smart, funny, nimble, and vital novels about early- or mid-twentieth-century women swimming against the tide. Most take place in New York, and some also depict the theater or other creative endeavors as crucibles for social struggles: Fay Weldon’s Worst Fears (1996); Bandbox by Thomas Mallon (2004); Marge Piercy’s Sex Wars (2005); The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (2014); Searching for Grace Kelly by Michael Callahan (2015); Careers for Women by Joanna Scott (2017); Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017); Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017); The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp (2018); Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt (2019); and Park Avenue Summer by Renée Rosen (2019). -- Donna Seaman (Reviewed 3/15/2019) (Booklist, vol 115, number 14, p41)

Publisher's Weekly

/* Starred Review */ Gilbert (The Signature of All Things) begins her beguiling tale of an innocent young woman discovering the excitements and pleasures of 1940 New York City with a light touch, as her heroine, Vivian Morris, romps through the city. Gradually the story deepens into a psychologically keen narrative about Vivian’s search for independence as she indulges her free spirit and sexuality. Freshly expelled from Vassar for not attending any classes, 19-year-old Vivian is sent by her parents to stay with her aunt Peggy Buell in Manhattan. Peg runs a scruffy theater that offers gaudy musical comedies to its unsophisticated patrons. As WWII rages in Europe, Vivian is oblivious to anything but the wonder behind the stage, as she becomes acquainted with the players in a new musical called City of Girls, including the louche leading man with whom she falls in love with passionate abandon. Vivian flits through the nightclubs El Morocco, the Diamond Horseshoe, and the Latin Quarter, where she hears Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Prima. Drinking heavily and scooting into the arms of numerous men, one night at the Stork Club she meets Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist, who plays a pivotal role in the tabloid scandal in which Vivian becomes embroiled. Vivian’s voice—irreverent, witty, robust with slang—gradually darkens with guilt when she receives a devastating comeuppance. Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the harsh truths of existence as the country plunges into WWII. Vivian—originally reckless and selfish, eventually thoughtful and humane—is the perfect protagonist for this novel, a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness. (June) --Staff (Reviewed 04/08/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 14, p)

Library Journal

After flunking out of Vassar College, 19-year-old Vivian Morris is sent by her wealthy parents to New York City to live with her unconventional aunt Peg, who owns a crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. It's the summer of 1940, and for a girl "so freshly hatched, there was practically yolk" in her hair, Vivian's new home is a bewitching mix of "glamour and grit and mayhem and fun." Vivian eagerly embraces her new life, quickly losing her virginity, embarking on wild escapades with showgirl Celia, and making costumes for the playhouse. But when a careless personal mistake results in a professional scandal, Vivian returns home, chastened, in a short-lived attempt to meet her parents' (and society's) expectations. The first half of Gilbert's (The Signature of All Things) historical novel is a rollicking coming-of-age delight, vividly capturing the spirit of the era. But the melancholy second half feels flat, owing to the awkward narrative structure that has ninety-something Vivian reflecting on her life in a letter to the daughter of the man she loves. VERDICT Tart-voiced Vivian and her adventures in 20th-century Manhattan will please readers who enjoyed Kathleen Rooney's Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. [See Prepub Alert, 12/3/18.] --Wilda Williams (Reviewed 06/01/2019) (Library Journal, vol 144, issue 5, p103)


/* Starred Review */ Someone told Vivian Morris in her youth that she would never be an interesting person. Good thing they didn't put money on it. The delightful narrator of Gilbert's (Big Magic, 2015, etc.) fourth novel begins the story of her life in the summer of 1940. At 19, she has just been sent home from Vassar. "I cannot fully recall what I'd been doing with my time during those many hours that I ought to have spent in class, but—knowing me—I suppose I was terribly preoccupied with my appearance." Vivian is very pretty, and she is a talented seamstress, but other than that, she is a silly, naïve girl who doesn't know anything about anything. That phase of her life comes to a swift end when her parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg. Peg is the proprietor of the Lily Playhouse, a grandiose, crumbing theater in midtown that caters to the tastes and wallets of the locals with week after week of original "revues" that inevitably feature a sweet young couple, a villain, a floozy, a drunken hobo, and a horde of showgirls and dancers kicking up a storm. "There were limits to the scope of the stories that we could tell," Vivian explains, "given that the Lily Playhouse only had three backdrops": 19th-century street corner, elegant parlor, and ocean liner. Vivian makes a close friend in Celia Ray, a showgirl so smolderingly beautiful she nearly scorches the pages on which she appears. "I wanted Celia to teach me everything," says Vivian, "about men, about sex, about New York, about life"—and she gets her wish, and then some. The story is jammed with terrific characters, gorgeous clothing, great one-liners, convincing wartime atmosphere, and excellent descriptions of sex, one of which can only be described (in Vivian's signature italics) as transcendent. There are still many readers who know Gilbert only as a memoirist. Whatever Eat Pray Love did or did not do for you, please don't miss out on her wonderful novels any longer. A big old banana split of a book, surely the cure for what ails you. (Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2019)


Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
by Kathleen Rooney
Embarking on a walk across Manhattan on New Year's Eve in 1984, eighty-five-year-old Lillian Boxfish recalls her long and eventful life, which included a brief reign as the highest-paid advertising woman in America, whose career was cut short by marriage and loss.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
When an aging and reclusive Hollywood icon selects an unknown magazine reporter to write her life story, the baffled journalist forges deep ties with the actress during a complicated interview process that exposes their tragic common history.

The Boston Girl
by Anita Diamant
Recounting the story of her life to her granddaughter, octogenarian Addie describes how she was raised in early-twentieth-century America by Jewish immigrant parents in a teeming multicultural neighborhood.