City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: it’s complicated

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS AND INCIDENTS OF ALL CAPS.

Seriously, this is a review for people who have already read this book. And you should definitely read this book.

Several friends suggested I read City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert-one went so far as to come to my house and hand me their copy. I found City of Girls, a refreshing story of female autonomy, engrossing from page one. It’s amazing, fantastic even, and I couldn’t put it down, but I do have some bones to pick.

The main character’s voice jumped off the page into my ear and I rooted for her every step of the way, even when she was being awful. Vivian is helped by being tall, skinny, and beautiful and for having the foresight to get really good at sewing in her youth. Looking like a supermodel and having superior skills in fashion design isn’t a bad set-up for life in the big city. The vibrant setting-New York City showbiz in the 1940s-makes you want to visit that time and place, in fact, I almost felt as though I had. Gilbert seamlessly weaves real-life events and people into the story, which enriches the historical context.

City of Girls explores nontraditional ways to live a woman’s life by showing how other women did it when alternatives were not readily available, and it is glorious. We see the benefits of hard work, natural talent, good looks, and learned courage. We see what a woman’s life looks like when she chooses self-determination and abandons norms: fulfillment of sexual desire on her own terms, loss of family connections, missteps that cause real pain to other people, freedom.

My issues with the story are as follows:

Young Vivian is the third party in a sexual threesome comprised of her best friend and the husband of a famous theater star. She is kinda coerced and kinda dumb and also really drunk when the tryst occurs. Unfortunately, the make-out session that led up to the encounter happened on the street and was photographed. Long story short, Vivian learns not to have sex with married men, but still spends the rest of her life sleeping around at will. That, of course, is not my problem. My problem is that even though she vows to never sleep with another married man, she picks up men in bars and beds them whenever she feels like it. I have bad news for Vivian and Elizabeth Gilbert-those men were probably ALL MARRIED. Men in bars who jump into bed with you ARE MARRIED, even in the 1940s. This seems like a significant oversight to me, especially since sisterhood is a main theme.

The star whose husband cheated dumps Vivian, but keeps the husband and the whole thing unfolds like Bill and Hillary. This dynamic goes unexplored, but it shouldn’t. IT SHOULDN’T, damn it. I don’t believe that unfaithfulness must automatically lead to divorce. How great would it be to spend some time mulling over how and why some couples stay together? And why the star forgave her husband, but not her friend?

And another thing, Vivian develops a long-term, secret friendship with a married man that can only be described as an emotional affair. How is that any better than having sex with him? Hell, its worse. This also goes unaddressed. The man and his wife lead separate lives and he is incapable of sex, so that makes it ok. Then why is it secret? Its secret because that goes to the main plot structure of the entire book. There, I have just about completely wrecked it for you.

All of my gripes aside, I loved this book because it’s about female desire, resilience, and how we can be when we decide to live the way want to. It shows the power of sisterhood while, perhaps inadvertently, admitting it’s shortcomings. Gilbert is a trailblazing voice for autonomy, not only in her writing, but by her willingness to share the details of her own life and loves. And I love her for it.

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