City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert

Most famous perhaps for her new age-y self-help memoir Eat, Pray Love, Gilbert is also and initially a novelist and this, her latest, is no slouch.  Substantial at 465 pages, it covers the mid-Twentieth Century through the life of upstate New York ingenue Vivian Morris, who receives an education and much more once she relocates to the city of the same name.  Sex and alcohol fuel much of the raucous early going, till the story abruptly shifts locale and tone around page 300. Disconcerting, that; and a serious disappointment to this reader, until a few chapters later when the narrative returns to its previous location and regains some (but only some) of its attitude.  From there the tale matures along with its protagonist, moving from girlish dalliances to womanly relationships and thoughts.

Which may be the author’s point.  While the title seems for a time to refer to the young women of the early chapters, and later to a play of the same name which becomes prominent for a while, it becomes ultimately a shorthand for all the different relationships between women which sustain these characters and the few social arrangements which care for and value them – the men in Gilbert’s telling being almost universally disappointing to the women, and often just as much so to themselves.  Her one male exception is introduced very near the end, a terribly-damaged creature with a heart of gold, who is, tellingly, an even greater disappointment to himself than any of those who preceded. 

Another indication: the two wronged women who get tossed out of Vivian’s life are both sorely missed and the reader spends the rest of the novel hoping they will be brought back for some dramatic rapprochement.  On the other hand, the one male who drops out is not missed in the least, despite being her close relative and a tragic victim of greater events.

Overall, and thanks almost exclusively to the quirky women Vivian meets in the big city, one comes away with the impression of a life lived off the beaten track and outside the generally accepted definitions of success and happiness, yet more successful and more satisfying at its end than many which better fit the traditional definitions.  A theme well in keeping with Gilbert’s other writings and a quite satisfying ending to a charming journey.

(BTW, the above description of Eat Pray Love is not meant to put it down. In addition to being on-trend, it is also deeply felt, thoroughly entertaining and insightful.  I read it some 13 years ago with under-liner in hand and closed the book feeling more optimistic about my own life than I had in ages.  Which is one reason I picked up City of Girls, though a reading of Gilbert’s 2000 first-novel, Stern Men, during the intervening years was also instrumental.  Either way, I am glad I did, and ready to read more of this author any time.)

(Illustration by Eleanor Davis for N. Y. Times review)

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