it’s been more than a decade since Elizabeth Gilbert’s inescapable memoir Eat, Pray, Love sent countless readers on their own quest for passport stamps, pasta, and spiritual fulfillment. Her latest, City of Girls, arrives with another kind of self-care directive. “My goal with this novel,” Gilbert explains in an opening author’s note, “was to write a book that would go down like a champagne cocktail — light and crisp, bright and fun.”
City does bubble and fizz, a sort of Drink, Dance, Flirt set amid the glamorous greasepainted swirl of 1940s New York’s theater-world bohemia. And it’s all catnip to the story’s narrator, Vivian Morris, a wayward 19-year-old debutante “so freshly hatched that there was practically yolk in my hair.” Expelled from Vassar after one feckless year — why go to class when there are beers to drink and jukes to joint? — she is sent by her weary parents to live with her outcast Aunt Peg, the owner of a fleabag playhouse still scraping by on old-timey vaudeville.
Unsurprisingly, the Lily feels more like home to Vivian than any cotillion or country club ever did; with her seamstress skills, she can even make herself useful, stretching Peg’s meager costume budget to dress a rotating cast of actors, misfits, and showgirls. One of them, a Bronx-born beauty named Celia, becomes both her roommate and her passkey to a glittering world of boys and booze and increasingly blurry all-nighters. But Vivian has a lot to learn about human behavior, and what it means to hurt the ones we love. Girls takes a few darker turns as she stumbles toward adulthood, though Gilbert stays true to her pledge that she won’t let her protagonist’s sexuality be her downfall, like so many literary heroines before her. That may be the most radical thing about a novel that otherwise revels in the old-fashioned pleasures of storytelling — the right to fall down rabbit holes, and still find your own wonderland. B+
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