Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, “City of Girls,’’ begins with a powder-keg of a request: “I wonder if you might now be comfortable telling me what you were to my father,” a woman named Angela writes to the now very elderly, infamous Vivian Morris. The response from Vivian is a sometimes maddening, something frothy, and ultimately a punch-to-the-heart reminiscence of the glamourous life she led and the difficult lessons she learned.
The narrative begins in 1940, as the Germans begin their march into Paris, and Vivian is just 19, “a girl so freshly hatched that there was practically yolk” in her hair. Kicked out of Vassar for not going to class, tall, pretty Vivian hightails it to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg and help out with the dilapidated Lily Playhouse that she runs. A talented seamstress, Vivian soon takes up sewing costumes, loses her virginity, becomes more and more wild.
The first section of the book is mostly about the Playhouse, and though it’s fascinating, it’s hard not to want to nudge Gilbert and ask, “Wait, what about Angela’s father and Vivian?” Still we get to see how a ramshackle theater is spiffed up; we witness a new play, “City of Girls,’’ being written, about a woman who turns her mansion into a casino and bordello in order to keep herself afloat.
The play gets a rave from the likes of Walter Winchell, and through it all there are all sorts of sexual shenanigans. Vivian falls in and out of bed, and in and out of love. She sees Peg and another woman Olive slow dancing and witnesses firsthand the tender love of women. But then Vivian makes a serious mistake, one that could ruin the theater and herself, and humiliate its star, Edna Watson. Edna coldly tells Vivian that she is the worst kind of woman, the kind who can never be trusted as a friend. Shamed, Vivian returns home but soon is summoned back to help with the theater.
That’s when things begin to perk up. We meet Vivian’s brother Walter, who goes off to war. Vivian feels lost and lonely, and interacts more with the colorful cast. Stillit’s hard to avoid growing impatient with the way Gilbert parcels out hints about Angela’s father; it comes to feel as though the best part of the story is waiting in the wings, behind a heavy velvet curtain we simply cannot budge.
But the wait is not without its delights. Gilbert gives us a heady Valentine to a changing New York City. There’s Coco Chanel and Helena Rubenstein. Vivian describes the downward slide of Times Square, and eventually the city itself. “Those once-glimmering neighborhoods now looked like weird, broken mouths — with half the old teeth knocked out, and some shiny new false ones randomly stuck in.”
Hairstyles change from reverse rolls to bobs. Vivian begins wearing trousers, even as she is designing bridal gowns, a dress she will never wear herself. The Lily, of course, is long demolished. And Vivian becomes more and more willing to do just as she pleases because “[a]t 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.”
Finally, finally, on page 400 (!) Vivian gives us the reveal we’ve been waiting for, the identity of Angela’s father, and what he meant to Vivian (and vice versa, what she meant to him) and the whole tone and texture of the novel dramatically change, becoming a more moving, haunting, and absolutely profound meditation on love, loss, friendship, and all the extraordinary ways people manage to live their lives. Angela’s father is, beside Vivian, the most extraordinary character in the book. And their relationship feels like the something that Vivian truly deserves after all her hard knocks in life.
“City of Girls’’ isn’t just the name of the play the Lily Playhouse puts on — it’s describing the changing and challenging roles of women in a big and bustling city. Despite Edna’s claim that Vivian had no idea how to be a friend, the novel proves otherwise, with an ending that is so profound and glorious, tears might be a reader’s only option. Vivian, at the end of her glamourous life knows what’s important: relationships. “You start to lose people,’’ Vivian tells us, and “there comes to be a terrible shortage of your people. The ones you loved.”
Gilbert’s book is as deliciously refreshing as a fizzy summer drink, but truly, in its second half, it’s also more like fine wine, thoughtfully crafted to be savored for its benefits.
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverhead, 470 pp., $28
Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, “With or Without You,’’ will be published by Algonquin Books in 2020.