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Summary and book reviews of City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls

A Novel

by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert X
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2020, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things, a delicious novel of glamour, sex, and adventure, about a young woman discovering that you don't have to be a good girl to be a good person.

"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." Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.

ONE

In the summer of 1940, when I was nineteen years old and an idiot, my parents sent me to live with my Aunt Peg, who owned a theater company in New York City.

I had recently been excused from Vassar College, on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams. I was not quite as dumb as my grades made me look, but apparently it really doesn't help if you don't study. Looking back on it now, I cannot fully recall what I'd been doing with my time during those many hours that I ought to have spent in class, but-knowing me-I suppose I was terribly preoccupied with my appearance. (I do remember that I was trying to master a "reverse roll" that year-a hairstyling technique that, while infinitely important to me and also quite challenging, was not very Vassar.)

I'd never found my place at Vassar, although there were places to be found there. All different types of girls and cliques existed at the school, but none of them stirred my curiosity...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Narrative: Elizabeth Gilbert chooses to tell Vivian's story in the form of a letter to a younger woman, Angela. How do you think the story benefits from being told in the voice of 89-year-old Vivian, looking back? What did you learn from this vantage? How did it influence your reading experience?
  2. Character perspective: In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian's introduction to life in New York City and within the Lily Playhouse is a shock after her world at Vassar and her family outside of the city. What is so different about it all? What elements of this new city and world shape her the most, do you think? And how might they have struck her differently if she'd come from a different kind of family and class background?
  3. Sexuality: Vivian ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The novel offers many examples of intimacy, love, and friendship, and it manages to stay lighthearted even in trying times. Despite the latter parts slowing down, City of Girls is a funny, charming coming-of-age story told by a woman who has lived a full life...continued

Full Review Members Only (596 words).

(Reviewed by Adrienne Pisch).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Unfortunately, what should have been a mere 300-page novel became a 470-page tome. The best and worst thing that can be said about City of Girls is that it’s perfectly pleasant, the kind of book one wouldn’t mind finding in a vacation condo during a rainy week...Novels so rarely get better that I was shocked to discover that the ending of City of Girls is genuinely moving...it’s a delight to see Gilbert finally invest these characters with some real emotional heft and complexity

Oprahmag.com
Gilbert takes us to New York City in the glamorous 1940s, where the sex was plentiful and showgirls just wanted to have fun.

Vulture
Gilbert's fiction—especially as it deals with the unlikely routes women take when the familial mold is shattered—is where it's really at…City of Girls, about young women in the sparkling and salacious theater world of 1940s New York, looks to be another story about the barriers women face—and catapult—while pleasure-seeking.

BuzzFeed News
[R]ich with memorable characters.

New York Times
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.

NPR
A breezy, entertaining read — and really, something better: a lively, effervescent, and sexy portrait of a woman living in a golden time…Passion, Gilbert never tires of informing us, that's the stuff of life. Not money, not the Darwinian struggle for survival, certainly not the family you are born with — passion is our raison d'etre. It's what makes us feel we are rocketing through the streets of New York City during the best days of our lives.

Hello Giggles
The perfect summer read.

Booklist (starred review)
Reading City of Girls is pure bliss, thanks to its spirited characters, crackling dialogue, rollicking yet affecting story lines, genuinely erotic scenes, and sexual intelligence, suspense, and incisive truths.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A big old banana split of a book, surely the cure for what ails you.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[B]eguiling...a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness.

Reader Reviews

Vicki

Main character has a lack of self-awareness and growth.
So you might have guessed by my title that I did not like this book. I found the main character shallow, and did not find her asserting her agency strictly through sex to be interesting or admirable. I got very tired of reading about her sexual ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

History of the New York City Theatre Scene

City of Girls The New York City borough of Manhattan sometimes seems like it's much older than it actually is, given its massive scale, impressive infrastructure, and cultural impact. However, it was only in the 1850s that work began on Central Park, and Manhattan started to rapidly expand north of 14th Street. Times Square was only so named in 1904, after Albert Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, moved the newspaper's headquarters to a new skyscraper on what was then called Longacre Square. The first subway line opened that same year. Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls stars Vivian Morris, a young woman who is introduced to New York City's theatre scene in 1940. Theatre, unlike the subway or Times Square, has a much longer history in the city. ...

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