Vivian, a ninety-year-old woman looks back at her life as she pens a letter to her best friend’s daughter. In an attempt to explain the connection she formed with her father over the years, she recounts her life as a woman whom, at first, couldn’t find her place in the world.
Confounded by her lack of prospects in both marriage and career, her parents shipped her off to New York in the care of an eccentric aunt. Peg owned a dilapidated, struggling theatre far and away from the vicinity of Broadway. In New York, she will discover freedom to be herself surrounded by women who will show her independence as well camaraderie borne of survival and artistic creativity by way of theatre. Starting in 1940, her story spans through decades of love, friendships, ruined relationships, war and heartbreaks.
In 2006, Eat, Love, and Pray was one of my favourite non-fiction novels. It was a book about a woman who showed great courage to leave what was familiar and venture all over the world to find herself. It was honest and awe-inspiring. It spurred on a curiosity for her other work. Unfortunately, I was convinced that Eat, Pray, and Love was a fluke — in my own opinion, anyway. So I never did find out exactly how versatile her writing was. City of Girls might’ve done its best to convince me to finally dive in to her backlist, though.
This book felt like it had two faces: the first half aimed to tell the story of women living in a commune above a theatre whose lives were, for the most part, untouched by men. To be clear, men were present but they held very little relevance to the occupants of the Lily theatre. They were side players in the periphery of their lives — which, I thought, was fantastic and one that I’ve rarely read about.
But with the entrance of Peg’s ex-husband, and the emergence of a play that eventually helped put Lily back on the map of theatre-goers, men were, all of a sudden, catalysts to the heartbreaks of the women in the theatre. Don’t get me wrong, women had choices here. Their lives turned out the way they turned out because they chose the paths they chose. I’m not facetious enough to strongly believe all men were evil in this novel. I just found it odd that things started falling apart once men started playing a bigger part in the second half of the novel.
Overall, City of Girls was a fantastic historical fiction in the tradition of The Great Gatsby. Elizabeth Gilbert introduced us to a set of extraordinary women in their own rights, flaws and all. And while the novel was very dense in its heft, her style induces a cathartic zen attributable to good writing. It felt like slipping into warm bath water. Familiar, comforting and a balm to one’s soul.