There are some writers who are destined to be judged on one outlandish success. Daphne du Maurier resented Rebecca until her dying day, and JK Rowling didn’t rebrand herself as Robert Galbraith for nothing. But when your name is Elizabeth Gilbert and that book is Eat, Pray, Love, the reactions are extreme; utter adoration or visceral loathing, with little in between.
In her third novel, it is spring 1940 and 19-year-old Vivian Morris has dropped out of her Ivy League college and been “banished” to a New York City in the midst of will-we-won’t-we-join-the-war indecision. But as Vivian puts it, “exile in New York is no exile at all”. The city is all glamour and excitement, with a hysterical edge familiar to readers in a contemporary world on the brink of global crisis.
Sent to live at her bohemian Aunt Peg’s down-at-heel mid-town theatre, The Lily, Vivian falls headlong in lust with a colourful world that has little in common with her privileged Wasp upbringing.
Worldly showgirl Celia Ray, streetwise leading man Anthony Roccella, grande dame Edna Parker Watson and her beautiful-but-dim actor husband Arthur, along with Hollywood wheeler-dealer Billy Buell, are like nothing and no one Vivian has ever encountered before. She’s not slow to cast off the moral and emotional shackles of her strait-laced, buttoned-down upbringing, embarking on a series of affairs and acquiring for herself a very different sort of education from the one that her parents would have deemed appropriate.
If this all sounds like something straight out of vaudeville, it is. And intentionally so. This is a work of historical fiction, and Gilbert’s prose, while not immaculate, zings with the mood of the era. In fact, like Gilbert’s previous novel, A Signature of All Things, it’s so true to life in places – including real historical figures in the story – that it occasionally feels like pastiche.
But Gilbert is nothing if not emotionally intuitive, and while City of Girls is unquestionably a sexy, glamorous romp, its similarities with vaudeville end there. The plot bristles with moral intent: Vivian’s fall, when it inevitably comes, is complete and damning and utterly gendered, its repercussions shadowing the rest of her life. Yet Gilbert wouldn’t be the woman she is – one who “spoke her truth” and left her husband to embark on a relationship with her female best friend, even as the friend was dying from pancreatic cancer – if she was to allow her female characters to be destroyed by society’s disapproval. And it’s at this point that the novel’s true heart is revealed.
Shame and scandal have taken on renewed meaning in the internet age: it’s almost becoming a cliche to assess creative work in the context of #MeToo, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and co. At the same time, it’s impossible to divorce artists from the climate in which they work, and Gilbert has been vocal in her concern that women’s sexual agency, always under threat, is particularly at risk right now. “We’re at this incredibly explosive moment of female anger and resistance, in terms of abuse against women,” she has said. “What I don’t want to see lost [is] the idea of women pursuing sex because it’s something they want to have.”
Gilbert has long since severed her bond with shame – and thank goodness. In other hands, this novel could have had all the adventure and enjoyment, but none of the depth; instead she makes it into a glorious, multilayered, emotionally astute celebration of womanhood.
It would be easy to dismiss City of Girls as joyous escapism, and God knows there’s little enough of that around right now. But look more closely and what you’ll see is an eloquently persuasive treatise on the judgment and punishment of women, and a heartfelt call to reclaim female sexual agency. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” says Vivian as she looks back on her life. “After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.” Let’s hope Gilbert is right.
• Sam Baker’s The Woman Who Ran is published by HarperFiction. City of Girls is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian