Ms. Gilber has really outdone herself with one of the best books I’ve read this year, feminist yet realistic, with a flare that few have, the story is one that will capture your heart up until the end. A book that needs to be read with an open mind and that will transport you back to a different New York. If there would be a book that I strongly recommend you to read this year, this is the City of Girls. Warning, the review might contain spoilers.
The narrator is Vivian, an old lady now that is telling her life story in a letter to a girl that asks what was the relationship that she had with her late dad. Unable to define it herself, Vivian gives the details of her life, for the conclusion to be taken by the readers. The story of is of a 19 years old girl, who is a college dropout, and is sent by her parents to live in the New York of 1940 with her aunt Peg.
A virgin with no sexual experience, Vivian enters the world of the Lily Playhouse theater filled with burlesque dancers and showgirls, glamour, drama, and low-cost tickets. This place is going to be her home in the next months. Since her talent included sewing, she volunteers to make the costumes for the actors in the plays. She will stay in one of the apartments from the upper floors, the one that belonged to Peg’s husband Billy, who she didn’t divorce although they were long separated and he lived in LA.
Celia, one of the showgirls, will be the one to guide Vivian through the process of sexual initiation, from staging, along with other dancers, where and with whom she will lose her virginity, to nights of partying and meeting random men. Vivians life transforms, she becomes a dressmaker by day and party girl by night. It all changes when WWII starts in London and one of the best actresses of the UK theaters joins the crew, along with Billy, the (ex)husband, who makes an appearance in NYC. They they all decide to put in place a new show, City of Girls, that will take Lily in a new direction and also the lives of everyone involved.
The moment when Vivian’s life will take a turn for the worst is when she is heartbroken and mislead into having an affair with Celia and the City of Girls’ main character’s husband. A mistake that will cause her to be expelled from the theater and sent back to her parent’s house.
The book has from the beginning a way of presenting the feminine sexual liberation as seen by the 20 years old girl and perhaps shows the way feminism was seen before and after the war. Even after falling in disgrace, the main character is still not taking full responsibility for her actions and doesn’t understand the harm she has caused up until the end when she is faced with the outcome.
I will not spoil the ending of the book, but I do want to say that it is not what you’ve expected. It will bring into light a different life path than you normally would have seen for that period and let’s face it, who doesn’t like to be taken back in time to a way different than now New York City. Perhaps I love this book even more, because of this place, but I do want to recommend you read it. I do hope they will make a movie out of it as well, so fingers crossed.