CITY OF GIRLS
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverhead Books/ Hardcover/ 466 pages/ $26.75/Books Kinokuniya/ 3.5 stars
Self-help guru Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, is back with a breezy new novel about a young woman's adventures in the 1940s New York theatre world.
Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris drops out of college and moves to Manhattan to be with her aunt, who owns a creaky mid-town theatre.
Skilled with a needle, Vivian helps out as a costume designer and is thrust into a cast of worldly characters - from stage doyenne Edna to the pretty showgirl Celia to no-nonsense stage manager Olive.
The young protagonist is swept from her Wasp upbringing into a lifestyle of glamour, alcohol and sexual liaisons, and gets tangled in a scandal that sees her pack her bags and head home - just as the dark clouds of World War II loom on the horizon. (The novel, narrated by Vivian as an old woman, is addressed to Angela, the daughter of a man she loved.)
Gilbert is a talented, charismatic storyteller whose flair has often been downplayed by people who dismiss her writing as chick lit.
City Of Girls, which is populated by glamorous women and certainly makes for light reading, may not be enough to convince the sceptics.
But for those who can see past the talk of fashion and love affairs, the book largely succeeds in challenging the (sadly still mainstream) idea that women should be ashamed or shamed because they are promiscuous. It also makes an admirable effort to depict meaningful friendships between women and throw the spotlight on those who carve out independent lives without tethering themselves to a husband.
Gilbert, a self-confessed "seduction addict" who once "careened from one intimate entanglement to the next - dozens of them - without so much as a day off between romances", may have been drawing on personal experience.
This could be why the novel sometimes veers into the realm of apologia, the narrator highlighting the gendered unfairness of the shaming for the reader's benefit: "The dirty little whores had been disposed of; the man was allowed to remain. Of course, I didn't recognise the hypocrisy then. But, Lord, I recognise it now."
The book, a baggy monster that could have done with tighter editing, contains generous dollops of materteral wisdom: "most marriages are neither heavenly nor hellish, but vaguely purgatorial"; "if you dress too much in the style of the moment, it makes you look like a nervous person".
Vivian revels in her sexual freedom. "It was more important for me to feel free than safe," she remarks.
For all its libertine abandon and exploration of sexual agency, City Of Girls often feels precisely that - too "safe", too smooth.
The novel has this particular city girl longing for something more gritty and daring, a more unflinching look at shame and trauma. It may be a pleasurable read, but it is also a rather unmemorable one.
If you like this, read: All The Beautiful Girls by Elizabeth J. Church (2019 edition, Fourth Estate, $19.26, Books Kinokuniya), the story of a showgirl who tries to conquer her tragic past amid the glamour of 1960s Las Vegas.