City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls
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City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert

It is the summer of 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York with her suitcase and sewing machine, exiled by her despairing parents. Although her quicksilver talents with a needle and commitment to mastering the perfect hair roll have been deemed insufficient for her to pass into her sophomore year of Vassar, she soon finds gainful employment as the self-appointed seamstress at the Lily Playhouse, her unconventional Aunt Peg’s charmingly disreputable Manhattan revue theatre. There, Vivian quickly becomes the toast of the showgirls, transforming the trash and tinsel only fit for the cheap seats into creations for goddesses.

Exile in New York is no exile at all: here in this strange wartime city of girls, Vivian and her girlfriends mean to drink the heady highball of life itself to the last drop. And when the legendary English actress Edna Watson comes to the Lily to star in the company’s most ambitious show ever, Vivian is entranced by the magic that follows in her wake. But there are hard lessons to be learned, and bitterly regrettable mistakes to be made. Vivian learns that to live the life she wants, she must live many lives, ceaselessly and ingeniously making them new.

‘At 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,’ she confides. And so Vivian sets forth her story, and that of the women around her - women who have lived as they truly are, out of step with a century that could never quite keep up with them.


This generous novel is not for fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Rather, it is for readers that want to be taken on a glorious, fictitious adventure through the 1940s and beyond. Set in New York, the narrative focuses on Vivian Morris’s life and her inability to conform to societal expectations. In desperation, her conservative parents send her as a nineteen-year-old to the Big Apple to live with the family renegade, Aunt Peg, who owns a charming but disreputable Manhattan revue theatre, the Lily Playhouse. Once there, Vivian quickly creates – for herself! – the role of theatre seamstress and becomes indispensable to Aunt Peg and the revue’s showgirls.

The lives of the women that reside and work in the theatre are applauded, not judged, in this novel. Gilbert said, ‘I have wanted to write a novel about women who have a lot of sex, and who like it, and whose lives aren’t destroyed by it.’ This philosophy generates delicious reading. Of course, the central female characters feel anger at the exploitation and hypocrisy faced by women, but they don’t allow this to hinder their lifestyle. They choose instead to adopt the jubilance and freedom that comes with living and being part of a collective. There is so much joy to be found in this novel as it explores the central characters’ concepts of humanity and community, and, as they age, the changing landscape and politics that form a backdrop to their lives. The effect is an adventure story that captures a kaleidoscope of colour and courage.

Gilbert’s enchanting City of Girls is an epic novel that will delight readers of Meg Wolitzer, Maria Semple and our own Liane Moriarty. It is the perfect novel with which to escape our winter blues. I truly enjoyed every page of this wondrous book.

Chris Gordon is the programming and events manager for Readings.

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