Stardust In Her Eyes:
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (2006) was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem, so the writer took a backseat. Based on the author’s own journey of self-discovery, it ended up as a light piece of romantic fluff anyway; she later wrote the much superior, The Signature Of All Things (2013), about a spirited 19th century female botanist.
Her latest novel, City Of Girls, is the funny, emotional, cheeky story of women in 1940s show business, as seen through the dazzled eyes of 19-year-old Vivian Morris. Fed-up of her rebellious attitude—she drops out of an Ivy League college–her parents pack her off to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg. For Vivian, this banishment is no trauma at all, but an experience that will open her eyes to the infinite possibilities life has to offer. The city is bursting with all the excitement and edginess that hits people when the future is uncertain—at that point it looks like America would be drawn into the World War, so the men are out on the town in a frenzy of hedonism, joined by women who want to grab their share of pleasure before all the young men are shipped off to the front.
Aunt Peg is not exactly the right guardian for Vivian—she runs a decrepit theatre called The Lily Playhouse, along with the stuffy Englishwoman Olive, while her husband, Billy Buell, whoops it up in Hollywood. The atmosphere at the theatre, amidst the sexy showgirls is decidedly Bohemian. The still naïve Vivian is taken under the wing of a gorgeous dancer, Celia Ray, and together they spend their nights in a haze of booze and sex. In a hilarious scene, Vivian is divested of her virginity in an almost clinical ‘operation’ planned by the showgirls.
When the Lily’s is in financial trouble, Billy Buell turns up to write and direct a grand production of City Of Girls, starring the British stage diva Edna Parker Watson and her handsome but untalented husband Arthur, who have been rendered homeless by a bomb falling on their London mansion. The leading man picked at the audition is the arrogantly macho Anthony Roccella, with whom Vivian falls in love. By then, she has converted her sewing expertise—her grandmother taught her well—into making gorgeous costumes for the shows The Lily puts up, and in the process, befriends the world weary Jewish girl, Marjorie, who runs her parents’ secondhand clothing store, quirkily named Lowtsky’s Used Emporium and Notions.
The show that Buell puts up is a triumph, mainly due to Edna’s performance that has the most snooty critic drooling praise. Vivian’s life, however, falls apart because of an ill-considered sexual romp. As is usually the case, the man gets away with his transgression, while the women are punished with shame, scandal and exile. Worse, Vivian’s ego is crushed when she is harshly told that she will never be in interesting person.
When all the chips are down, it is Marjorie’s business sense and Vivian’s sewing skills that come to the rescue, as the book moves to a mellower period of Vivian’s life–a fulfilling career and tender friendship with a wounded war veteran.
In this vividly imagined work of historical fiction and the coming-of-age story of a courageous young woman, Gilbert takes a nonjudgmental look at female desire. There are also the wonderful descriptions of the hot spots, costumes, fashions of the time, all peppered with evocative dialogue. (This book will make one hell of a good-looking movie!)
“At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” says Vivian. “After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.”
The women in Gilbert’s novel are warm, sometimes gullible, but also tenacious. City Of Girls is a luxurious couch of a book the reader can sink into and emerge a little wiser… and a lot more understanding of people’s lifestyle choices.
City Of Girls
By Elizabeth Gilbert