Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel is in the form of a largely unapologetic, occasionally smug and rather lengthy letter from Vivian Morris to her beloved friend’s curious daughter, Angela Grecco. Angela’s query, sent in 2010 — “Might [you] now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?” — affords Vivian an opportunity to recount her life of adventures in Manhattan.
She begins in 1940, when, after being “excused” from Vassar “on account of never having attended classes,” she moves to Hell’s Kitchen and into the Lily Playhouse with her Aunt Peg and Peg’s partner, Olive, a woman billed in public and in fact as Peg’s “secretary.” Filled with showgirls, songwriters, ashtrays and martinis — not to mention the stage itself, “a huge, golden-lit, fading old jewel box” — the Lily is an ode to cheerful disorder. When Peg’s estranged husband visits from Hollywood and produces a successful show, “City of Girls,” the Lily tips briefly into fame before its eventual demolition in 1950.
In the meantime, Vivian swiftly befriends a group of showgirls and sews costumes for them. She is particularly close to Bronx-born Celia Ray, whose beauty is remarked upon so frequently that it becomes the forefront of her character. Vivian, too, has been granted the fortune of a widely appreciable appearance — “I was always pretty, Angela,” she writes; “What’s more, I always knew it.” Prettiness, along with her wealth (“I was rich, Angela. I was rich, and I was spoiled.”) gird Vivian through plenty of upheaval.
Hung over and carefree, she stumbles through the city’s salacious nightlife offerings with little consequence — an absence of conflict that grows increasingly problematic for the novel, as the pastiche of drinks and clubs begins to merge and become indistinct. When there are truly terrible moments, Vivian is always protected, whether by Celia, Peg or her continuous flow of good luck.
The great crisis that causes Vivian’s temporary exile from New York is a dalliance with both Celia and a married man. She gets sent upstate until Peg rescues her (after a broken engagement) and then resumes a city life. Her theater background leads to work in the Navy Yard. Her brother Walter dies in the war, but his character remains sketchily formed, as does Vivian’s grief. The writing has less energy after the glitz of the Lily Playhouse — a slowdown that mirrors the characters’ lives.
Vivian’s devil-may-care disposition can be quite charming, but readers may feel a lack of hardship in this narrator’s life, and with it a lack of conflict and urgency. When she finally answers Angela’s question, Vivian assures Angela that although she misses Frank Grecco, “I’ve done just fine in my life,” and she is “embarrassingly healthy” in her “ripe old age.”
This is indeed the case, and overall it makes Gilbert’s latest work a joyous and spirited read.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
City of Girls
By: Elizabeth Gilbert.
Publisher: Riverhead, 470 pages, $28.