CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert

When Vivian Morris, now near the end of her long and strange life, receives a letter from the only daughter of a man she used to spend nights with – not in the way this cumbersome formulation suggests – she will be confronted with a question she cannot answer.

In an attempt to offer a different but only possible answer, Vivian will recall her tumultuous and ragged youth, in the city of girls, New York, in the 1940s.

She was 19 when her parents, embarrassed by her expulsion from Vassar University (it turned out that in order to successfully attend her studies, she regularly had to attend classes and complete her studies, a fact that completely puzzled young Vivian) sent her to live with her aunt in New York, where she came equipped only with her youth, beauty and sewing machine in a suitcase.

Her Aunt Peg herself is the outcast (or rejected?) “Degenerate” of the family. She lives in a way that would be considered shameful in the traditional environment from which Vivian herself was expelled; unmarried (sigh!), childless (outrageous!), completely dedicated to staging unnoticed but entertaining performances at her private Lily Playhouse Theater (shame!), surrounded by an age, status and morally diverse group of people (scandalous!). In short, she lives the life that young Vivian immediately embraced enthusiastically.

Vivian knows that she was released from the chain (she knows because they never even tied it around her neck – that’s why she is where she is now), and in front of her is a city that is a whirlwind of fun, challenges and adventures that never stop and Vivian is hungry – oh, how hungry she is! – of life! And New York is ready to open all its doors to those who have a VIP ticket for everything – youth, beauty and money.

Surrounded by a group of beautiful, free-spirited and far more experienced girls, eager to embark on her adventures, Vivian finds herself drawn to the maddening pulse of New York’s nightlife, to her delight. There is no one to say no to her, no one to ask her where she was and who she was with, no one to tell her what she is laughing and what she is not laughing about – girls like Vivian wouldn’t even hear it.

But, as Vivian will soon learn, life is not just fun with no consequences, and it is not invulnerable, untouchable and unstoppable. The world is in the midst of war, and the collision of real life and her frivolous lifestyle will set off a tremendously fast and painful upbringing that will completely shift her world and redirect her destiny. The war has shaken the ground at the feet of much more serious, responsible and experienced people than she is. What happens to troubled girls in these circumstances?

To author Elizabeth Gilbert, this is the first novel published almost 6 years after “Signature of All Things,” a historical novel that I proclaimed to be the best book read in 2015. From the “Signature” to the present day, many unexpected twists and turns have occurred in the author’s private life, which have certainly directed her interest towards a book such as “City of Girls”. They didn’t actually happen – she caused them herself.

Specifically, in 2016, she abandoned her husband, whom she met at the time of writing the book, Eat, Pray, Love, which made her internationally known, to be with the love of her life, Ray Elias, who was diagnosed with aggressive liver and pancreatic cancer. During this time, she completely abandoned writing and devoted herself to a completely different life – loving and nurturing a dying mistress, whose spirit and unstoppable energy she had admired in previous years in which they were only close friends.

A year earlier, she had published a book called “Big Magic” dedicated to the force of creative creation and the courage and faith needed to fully indulge the artist in this turbulent and unpredictable process. Along with this inspiring book, her podcast, “Magic Lessons,” in which she talks to real people who want to devote part of their lives to helping them find the courage to write, photograph, sing, dance, draw, paint – became popular respond to anything that constantly and quietly invokes their soul.

The research for the book City of Girls lasted four years and began when Elizabeth Gilbert, reading Alexander Woollcott’s interviews with formerly famous New York theater actresses, was fascinated by the fascinating lives they had and the careers they had.

New York City in the 1940s was a city of youth, enjoyment and fun; it was the stirring center of culture, film, theater; promiscuous city of dancers, sex and sexual freedom. Having met some ninety-year-olds who lived and danced at the time and left the author speechless for stories about their lives, Elizabeth knew what she had to write about.

For many years, the author herself has led her life in the eyes of her audience over which the world (at least the part of the world that knows about it) politely raises eyebrows or is openly disgusted. Throughout her books, she has touched on numerous occasions everything that the world wants a woman to be ashamed of – and sexual interests and sexual needs and sexual fantasies and sexual adventures – especially if a woman comes along and proudly says that she enjoys her own (non-married) sex life – the world is comforted to silence her, to shame her, to punish her.

So she needed to write a book like this, wanting it to be read easily, quickly, excitedly, with a smile. She wanted to talk about promiscuous girls and the sexual fun they indulge in, in many of her interviews that followed the publication of this book, without necessarily ending their lives.

Western literature, says the author, is full of women who are harshly punished and utterly ruined for not having taken their sexual needs well and forcing them out of holy marriage. Entire books appear to reflect in the dawning descriptions of a woman’s decay, describing them even more devotionally and in more detail than, several tens of pages earlier, describing their “sins”.

Is it possible, then, for a woman or a girl to lead a sexually exciting life, all without consequences? Well, this is where Elizabeth hunts us – every decision we make, every choice we make has its consequences. Sex has its consequences, but there are also over indulgence in food and drink, for example.

But the consequences are not the same for women and men; it seems that society and its individuals are determined to impose on women inevitable consequences that their lives (sexually arousing lives) themselves would never pose. A man, for example, will pay for a sexual adventure with a woman with a maybe a broken nose; a woman will pay for everything else that really counts – reputation, destiny, future, pride, health, life.

A man will be punished by another man or another woman. The woman will be punished by the whole society. And why, Elizabeth asks?

What, then, happens to women who enjoy their youth and their (and others’) body, exploring their own sexual needs and fantasies?

If society does not intervene – one big Nothing happens to them. They have fun, enjoy themselves, repent, learn, discover, get tired, recover. They enjoy, they stumble, they get up. And they go on with their lives. As with everything else in life, as far as sex is concerned. And they may even be welcoming their nineties full of memories of their wonderful, well-lived (and cheerfully spent) youth.

They probably get themselves the most beautiful, best, most valuable epithet a woman can carry – an interesting woman.

“City of Girls” is a completely different beast than the book “The Signature of All Things” was, their protagonists could not be more different, but in both the same reader will find themselves. And although “City of Girls” is a poorer book than my favorite “Signature”, it has proven to me that Elizabeth Gilbert is an interesting woman, a shapeshifter who tirelessly explores all aspects of female nature. Personal transformation is still a weapon in which she is eminently skilled, employing it both in her own private life and in the lives of her characters.

And this book shows that she loves to throw her characters to their knees, bring them to life situations that will completely dismantle them – not because Elizabeth sadistically enjoys their suffering and humiliation, but because she is truly, as a person and as an author, fascinated starting, making sense of herself and her own life from scratch; in other words, she is mesmerized by the woman’s courage to stand up and the audacity to persevere.

In this book, beneath that glittering and divisive feeling, Elizabeth’s earnest reflection and dedication to those hybrid relationships between people, those relationships for which we have no name – and if society did not name such relationships, as if she did not give them her blessing, are felt. Yet, such relationships exist and are extremely numerous, and one such relationship – one that answers the question from the beginning of the book and the beginning of this review – is the most precious gem of this whole book and its most touching part. When I think of this book, I don’t remember all that unrestrained sex (it could have been more of it, if you ask me); I remember the half-night call and the questions, “Are you awake? Do you want to go for a walk? “

These are the scenes that made my heart pound like crazy with a goofy smile on my lips…

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