Another title from the “just caught my attention” collection. This book caught my eye last year when I attended my second Mama Gena’s weekend in the Ziegfeld Ballroom. That site isn’t actually the building where the Follies were performed, but it still had a potent resonance, walking in the spiritual footprints of the Ziegfeld Girls while doing Mama G’s program, and then learning about this novel about 1940s New York showgirls all at the same time.
Full disclosure: I’ve never read anything by Gilbert before. I know Eat, Pray, Love was a huge phenomenon, and that Gilbert followed it up with another memoir (or two or three) as her life took additional twists and turns. It wasn’t ever a definitive decision I made against reading her stuff, I just never got around to it. (So many books, so little time…)
Still, knowing what little I know about the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing, I was truly puzzled about what type of “New York showgirl” story this particular author might want to tell. Would it completely eschew her introspective memoir thing to go all the way into glitz and escapism? Would it tell an anachronistic story of female sexual liberation and expression? What exactly would I find behind this pink feathered cover?*
The answer? A little bit of all of the above.
The novel tells the life story of blue-blood Vivian Morris, told in her own voice as she looks back over a long and eventful life. Obviously, the flashback structure is similar to the most recent book I reviewed, but in this case, Vivian is addressing the story to a specific individual named Angela. Although Gilbert uses the brief set-in-current-day prologue to provide us with both this name and a tantalizing clue of who Vivian is telling her story to (“Now that my mother is dead, can you tell me what you were to my father?”), she doesn’t deliver the payoff of connecting these relational dots until about 85% of the way in.
Instead, Vivian starts her story with her arrival in New York City, the urbane, urban bohemia that became home to her in a way that hoity-toity Connecticut never was. Having dropped/flunked out of college at age 19, Viv’s fed-up parents decide to banish her to the big city and the care of her Aunt Peg, who happens to run a run-down old theater in 1940s midtown Manhattan, offering a rotating slate of formulaic revues that combine vaudeville elements with the sex appeal of showgirls.
Now as far as “banishments” go, sending a leggy 19-year-old who sees her only skills as “sewing and sex” into this setting is about as good an example of briar patching as I’ve ever seen. Young Viv throws her lot in with this rag-tag company, becoming their costume designer. During the day and early evenings, she grows her skills in building costumes for the stage and in repurposing rag shop finds to create whatever atmosphere and luxuriousness the show demands. After the closing show, Viv paints the town with the company’s head showgirl, reveling in drunkenness and debauchery, all described with verve and clever elision by Gilbert.
So that’s the portion of the book that dishes up glitz, escapism and anachronistic sexual liberation. Until it all comes crashing down—which, honestly, is when the book turned the corner for me from being pleasant-enough-but-sort-of-tiresome into something much more interesting.
I’m not going to spoil the plot by detailing exactly what sort of sexual scandal occurs at this point. Sam Baker in The Guardian summarizes it best, when he writes:
Vivian’s fall, when it inevitably comes, is complete and damning and utterly gendered, its repercussions shadowing the rest of her life.[emphasis added]
And it’s the trenchant nature of that awareness—Viv’s explicit acknowledgement of how she is once again banished (this time back to that boring Connecticut estate) for her misdeeds, while the male player in this scandal bears minimal repercussions—and it’s Gilbert’s refusal to let her protagonist be lost to shame that began to make Viv much more interesting to me.
Interestingly enough, the first, glizty episodes in the book take maybe 60% of the literary real estate, and cover approximately 9 months of action.** The remaining pages cover, quite literally, decades of action in a much sketchier fashion. Viv finds her way back to NYC, learns to deploy her sewing and scrounging skills in a new line of work where she finds creative reward and a new sort of confident humility. Peace of mind. Found family. Healing.
There are critics (both on Goodreads and professionally) who point to the skimpiness of this latter narrative, the shallow coverage of so many years in so few pages as a flaw in the book’s execution. I disagree. For me, the incredible level of detail in the 1940-41 section got to be really tiresome, and the sparser narrative of the latter section was a refreshing indicator of Viv’s shift from self-absorption to maturity.
Or, as David Gates ends his review in The 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.
* Anyone who’s done a Mama G’s weekend knows how funny a “coincidence” that particular detail is…
** How many months does it take to brew a life-altering scandal? Viv arrives in NYC in summer 1940, and scandal occurs in March 1941.
- City of Girls cover: photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.
- Fan dance: Wikimedia Commons, via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.