Monday, August 26, 2019
Read by Blair Brown
Published June 2019 by Penguin Publisher Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library
"Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are."
Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.
In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves - and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.
Now eighty-nine years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life - and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. "At some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time," she muses. "After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is."
I've been struggling with this review. There was so much I liked about this book. And yet, when I was about two-thirds of the way through it, a friend asked me what I thought of it and the word that came to mind at that point was "boring." So I turned, as I so often do, to see what other people thought of the book. Was I the only one who felt this way? Had I missed something? Was I the only person who found this book to be terribly uneven and who felt it had lost its way? The answers to those questions is "no."
Vivian is looking back on her life because she's received a letter from a woman whose father has died and she is asking Vivian for an explanation of her father's and Vivian's relationship. This book is meant to be Vivian's response. A hundred pages in, it occurred to me to think it was odd that Vivian would go into such detail as a response to that request.
At that point, though, I was thoroughly into the story. Ron Charles, of the Washington Post, nailed it when he said that Gilbert has a good ear for the "arch repartee of 1940's comedy." Y'all, I love 1940's comedies - Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, anyone? Vivian's time with her Aunt Peg at the Lily Playhouse was filled with humor, wild abandon, a crazy cast of characters, and descriptions that made the place and time come alive. I'd completely forgotten that I was meant to be reading a letter to the daughter of one of Vivian's loves.
Then Vivian's life crashed and the vibrancy of the book crashed as well. I tried to give Gilbert the benefit of the doubt - certainly she would have wanted readers to feel how flat Vivian's life had become and to understand how she might yearn for the life she had once had and for us to truly understand how what had happened affected her. But I was so bored by the book at that point that I seriously considered giving up on it, and you know how rare it is for me to give up on a book.
Gilbert saved the book with the third act (a reminder why I am always so loathe to give up on a book). It didn't have the same sparkle, nor the humor, and went longer than it needed to as it worked it's way back to the answer to the daughter's question. Which sounds like I didn't like the ending but I actually liked it a lot and was very glad that I had stuck with this book. Although I'm not sure I can recommend it. Now you see why I was struggling with this review!
Here's my other struggle with recommending this book - you can't skim an audiobook (yes, I know you can speed it up but you can only stand so much mosquito buzzing reading) so you can't just move ahead to the good parts of the book. But if you read it in print, no Blair Brown and Blair Brown was the perfect person to "play" Vivian.
Ron Charles raves about Gilbert's first book, Stern Men. Maybe I'll go pick that up so I can appreciate Gilbert's often impressive skills in a book that really works.