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.
Vivian, who begins the novel as a naïve, silly 19-year-old and ends it a slightly wiser octogenarian, is a blank, a TV turned to static—fuzzy, mildly distracting, and ultimately an annoyance. Why an accomplished novelist like Gilbert would so blithely expose the hole where her protagonist’s personality ought to be, I don’t know. But Vivian is dull, and, what’s worse, there is nothing intriguing about her dullness ... Vivian is all feathers and glitter—a sparkly story stitched onto a formless narrative garment that forgets all the lessons Gilbert has learned (and imparted) about the so-called plight of single, sexually voracious women ... [The book offers] a glimpse into the inner workings of the mid-century New York theater world that is as engaging as all the sequined gowns might suggest. But City of Girls then skips willy-nilly through the rest of Vivian’s life, compressing decades into sentences and lingering on like a comatose patient without a living will. She has sex, makes friends, sews a bit, walks the city, and remains shut off to her own interiority all the while ... The problem here is that Gilbert writes as if having a ton of sex...is a replacement for a personality ... This novel is simply an idea walking around pretending to be a fleshed-out character study ... This sex is as meaningless for the reader as it is for Vivian.