Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman, Vivian, 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.
...a funny, bittersweet, moving coming-of-age story ... There is so much to love in City of Girls. Vivian’s voice is strong and leaves you yearning for more time with her. Her love of sex is unapologetic, and the novel explores female desire in a refreshingly radical way ... Gilbert revels in bringing to life the world of New York City theatre in the Forties, with Vivian’s love of fashion making for vivid descriptions of everyone’s outfits and costumes ... There’s something slightly reminiscent of Forrest Gump in Vivian’s tale, in that you truly get to know a character when you see them through several decades ... Women grow old together in more ways than one, and the novel does a wonderful job at encapsulating the many, many ways in which people love each other ... With City of Girls, Gilbert adds a valuable contribution to the genre – and shows that she’s as gifted a novelist, as she is a memoirist.
Vivian’s arrival at a self-knowing self-sufficiency doesn’t have quite the oomph of a heroine throwing herself under a train (Or, for that matter, of a heroine marrying Mr. Darcy.) ... Paradoxically, this open-endedness, this refusal of received literary templates, is what makes City of Girls worth reading. It’s not a simple-minded polemic about sexual freedom and not an operatic downer; rather, it’s the story of a conflicted, solitary woman who’s made an independent life as best she can. If the usual narrative shapes don’t fit her experience—and they don’t fit most lives—neither she nor her creator seems to be worrying about it.
This is a work of historical fiction, and Gilbert’s prose, while not immaculate, zings with the mood of the era. In fact, like Gilbert’s previous novel...it’s so true to life in places – including real historical figures in the story – that it occasionally feels like pastiche. But Gilbert is nothing if not emotionally intuitive, and while City of Girls is unquestionably a sexy, glamorous romp, its similarities with vaudeville end there. The plot bristles with moral intent ... Gilbert has long since severed her bond with shame – and thank goodness. In other hands, this novel could have had all the adventure and enjoyment, but none of the depth; instead she makes it into a glorious, multilayered, emotionally astute celebration of womanhood. It would be easy to dismiss City of Girls as joyous escapism, and God knows there’s little enough of that around right now. But look more closely and what you’ll see is an eloquently persuasive treatise on the judgment and punishment of women, and a heartfelt call to reclaim female sexual agency.