One of the chief regrets of book-loving women of my age — and a surprising number of men — is that no one writes novels like Love in a Cold Climate and The Dud Avocado any more. I’m talking about the brand of romantic misadventure written with such wit, verve and emotional honesty that you feel you’ve washed down 100 life lessons within a vodka martini. Miraculously, Elizabeth Gilbert has managed to pull off exactly this feat with her high-kicking new novel City of Girls. It helps that she’s set the story in a shabby New York vaudeville theatre in the 1940s, thronging with bohemians, and everyone spouts one-liners straight out of Romcom Central.
The novel winds its way back into the past in the form of a letter to a woman called Angela, who’s written to the aging narrator asking ‘if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?’. The answer is far more complicated than you might expect, and much of the novel’s action takes second place to a shaggy showgirl story.
Gilbert’s preppy, spoilt heroine (‘I was always pretty, Angela. What’s more, I always knew it’) is 19-year-old Vivian Morris, who’s been booted out of Vassar for doing sweet FA. In the summer of 1940 she heads for Manhattan, where her irrepressible aunt Peg owns a down-at-heel theatre, the Lily Playhouse, and is unfailingly kind to waifs and strays. Before you can sing ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, our ingénue is ensconced in a room over the theatre, chastely sharing a bed with the chorus line’s most seductive hoofer, Celia, and making costumes for the entire cast.
Vivian’s sole skill on arrival is her pronounced talent as a seamstress (‘I never forget what anyone is wearing, ever’), although by the time the summer’s over she’s also a grade-A vamp about town. Within weeks of her tenure the theatre’s dancers learn that Vivvie’s a virgin and set about liberating her from this temporary inconvenience. They rustle up discreet, married, middle-aged Dr Kellog, who ‘enjoyed bird-watching, collecting stamps and having sex with showgirls’. Vivian is shocked to learn that the doctor gives his lovers pocket money —which earns the swift riposte: ‘Well, what’d you think, Vivvie? That we pay him?’
Divested of naivety and fitted with ‘a pessary’, Vivian describes to Angela how ‘drunk, pinwheel-eyed, briny-blooded, brainless, weightless, Celia and I spun through New York City that summer on currents of pure electricity’. The war in Europe barely impinges on their ‘constant search for the vivid’ until two glamorous, bombed-out British thespians, Edna and Arthur Watson, appear as refugees at the Lily Playhouse. The duo are closely followed by Peg’s long-absent, raffish writer husband, Billy Buell, ‘that rare man who claims to love women and actually does’. All the elements for a hit show are in place, but so is the touch-paper for emotional carnage.
If this sounds frothy, the war does, in time, cast a lasting shadow, and elderly Vivian’s scrutiny of past events reminds me of the profound humanity underpinning Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet chronicles. Furthermore, there are some of the most brilliant and truthful evocations of youthful sexual exploration that you’ll ever read. If I have one quibble, the text could probably have been cropped a little — but when company and conversation is this delightful, more is more.
Gilbert says in her foreword that she set out to write a novel about ‘promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires’. She has triumphed. City of Girls is an education in love, and an iridescent delight.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.