City of Girls
My Rating: ★★★★☆
First of all, isn’t that cover gorgeous? Apparently I’m not beyond judging a book by its cover, because I’d added this to my TBR last year without even glancing at the synopsis! But when I did get to read it, I found the cover very apt for its subject matter – namely, the coming-of-age story of the narrator and costume designer Vivian Morris in the 1940s New York theatre scene.
Don’t let the pink feathers and gilded letters fool you, though. This isn’t just a sparkly romp through the glamorous 1940s; it’s also full of heart, and it deals with the thorny issues of female desire, sexuality, and friendship with a light yet surprisingly nuanced touch. After reading the book, I felt very full and leaky and on the verge of encircling the nearest human being in a gentle (albeit unsolicited) embrace.
This expansive yet tender feeling was also something I’ve felt after reading Gilbert’s last novel, The Signature of All Things, published last 2013 and which I read in 2018. Back then, I was very skeptical of reading anything by Gilbert. Like most people, all I knew about her was Eat, Pray, Love – a book I disliked on principle and one I never planned to read – but to my surprise, all it took was just the first lines of The Signature of All Things to banish that skepticism. Truthfully, I’ve never felt myself slip into the world of a book faster than when I read those opening lines. With an astonishment that’s admittedly unfair to Ms. Gilbert, I thought, Man, this woman knows how to tell a story – this woman can write.
In fact, I would say that out of all the authors I’ve read so far, Gilbert’s writing – her authorial voice, her portrayal of the characters, her subjects, the rhythm and architecture of her sentences – resonates with me on a very personal level. She may not be the most technically skilled writer (e.g., Virginia Woolf) or the keenest social observer (e.g., Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), but there’s just something about how she writes that feels closest to how I want to notice things, or how I want things to be talked about. I don’t know if that makes any sense – it’s so deeply felt that I have difficulty articulating it – but I don’t know, I just get her writing (or perhaps more appropriately, her writing gets me).
I think part of what I enjoy about her writing is the span and scope of it. Both The Signature of All Things and City of Girls spans nearly a century of history, told through the perspective of her female protagonist. In City of Girls in particular, she not only covers the New York 1940s theatre scene; she also touches on World Wars I and II, their aftermath, and the sexual revolution. These are undoubtedly Very Important Events, and as such they could easily have swallowed up the novel’s characters – and we, the readers, understanding the space needed to explore such events, might not have minded. But Gilbert prevents their sombre importance from eclipsing the story by prioritising her protagonist’s lived experience of these historical moments; she doesn’t sacrifice scope for intimacy of detail. Look at how she introduces the encroaching World War II:
There was a war coming, by the way.
[. . .]
Right around the time that I moved to New York—this would be the middle of June 1940—the Germans had marched into Paris. (So much for Dad’s theory.) But there was too much excitement going on in my life for me to follow the story closely. I was far more curious about what was happening in Harlem and the Village than what had happened to the Maginot Line. And by August, when the Luftwaffe started bombing British targets, I was going through my pregnancy and gonorrhea scares, so I didn’t quite register that information, either.
History has a pulse, they say—but mostly I have never been able to hear it, not even when it is drumming right in my goddamn ears.
When I first read this, I was struck by how a serious declaration such as ‘There was a war coming’ was followed by the offhand phrase ‘by the way’ – as if it were an afterthought. I think this sometimes mirrors how we are in our own lives, especially when we’re younger or preoccupied by a personal crisis – monumental events at the forefront of history seem to be relegated to the backgrounds of our lives, and it’s only in retrospect or with more time and space that we can truly think about the ramifications of what had happened.
That said, with a book of this span and scope, it’s bound to be unevenly told. A number of readers have commented on how they seemed to have read two different books – a very interesting first half, and a dull and boring second half. I’d agree that there is a tonal shift at around the midway point, but I’d say it’s less due to Gilbert’s inability to sustain good storytelling than it is due to the developmental transitions of the protagonist. Simply put: Vivian grew up.
In the first half of the novel, Vivian talks about her youth, and the ‘manic’ tone and vivid descriptions of each new experience reflect the wonder, anxiety, and excitement we all feel at the flush of discovering something for the first time (e.g., her first friend crush, falling in love for the first time, having an orgasm for the first time). What propelled the narrative of the first half forward was the series of people that Vivian met in the magical world of theatre. In particular, Vivian fixates on a handful of people that would later become important to her sense of self – the glamorous showgirl Celia Ray as her first friend and her first guide into the world of sexuality; the acclaimed actress Edna Parker Watson as her model for real sophistication; and the cool and arrogant Anthony Roccella as her first love. In retrospect, she admits:
I realize now that I always needed somebody to be infatuated with when I was twenty years old, and it didn’t really matter who, apparently. Anybody with more charisma than me would do the trick. [. . .] I was so unformulated as a human being, so unsteady in myself, that I was constantly grasping for attachment to another person—constantly anchoring myself to someone else’s allure.
In contrast, in the second half, the concentrated force of this youthful adulation is diffused by Vivian’s involvement in war efforts, and by her own burgeoning sense of maturity and certainty. Here, we begin to see her quiet confidence as a dressmaker, and her calm acceptance of her sexual appetites. This is the Vivian who is able to say:
Anyway, at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.
After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.
As such, if the first half of the novel was a relentless assault of spectacle and novelty, the second half was a mellow savouring of meaningful experiences – e.g., female friendships, pleasurable sex, and intimate conversation. It’s in the second half that we get a more nuanced exploration of the different kinds of love that an individual can experience in her life. So while the two halves seemed disjointed for some readers, it worked well enough for me – I was able to see the whole they tried to represent.
There’s a lot more to commend in this novel – Gilbert’s vivid and masterful characterisations; her ear for natural-sounding dialogue – but this review is becoming too long, so I’ll end with one last point: why I only gave it 4 stars.
As much as I wanted to give this 5 stars, the one thing that didn’t work for me was the way the entire narrative was framed. Vivian is 95 years old when she’s recalling this story, in response to a letter written by someone named Angela, who’d asked, in essence, “What were you to my father?” We are to believe that this 470-page novel is a response to that, when the only part that reasonably answers that question is the last third of the novel. In my opinion, the story would have been more believable and just as interesting without this narrative frame.
All in all, though, it was a very delightful and immersive read, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
Find me on Goodreads | Read from December 22-30, 2019