It was actually Whoopi Goldberg who first turned me onto this book by Elizabeth Gilbert. Every summer The View does a feature called “Ladies Get Lit” (a name Whoopi hates), in which each co-host has a chance to talk about two or three books they’re reading and would like to recommend to the audience. One of the books Whoopi mentioned was City of Girls and she made it sound so good I immediately requested the audiobook from my library.
She was right. This book is so much fun!
The main character/narrator is a woman named Vivian, although I can’t remember her last name. The premise is a very old woman (in her 90s I think?) who has just received a letter from a friend’s daughter informing her that said friend is dead. His daughter then asks, “What were you to my father?”
The answer is meant to be the entire book. In order to give the daughter (Angela) the full context surrounding their relationship, Vivian had to go all the way back to her early adulthood as a 19-20 year old, then fast forward a bit and just the last few chapters deal with Vivian meeting Frank (Angela’s father).
The book starts in NYC in 1940 when Vivian has just been kicked out of Vassar for not going to class. Her conservative, upper-middle-class family doesn’t know what to do with her, so they send her off to New York to live with her paternal Aunt Peg, the owner of a run-down theater whom her father has always looked down on as someone who gallivants through life rather than working hard (he clearly has no idea what it takes to run a theater).
So, before being shipped off to New York, Vivian had only met her aunt once or twice in her life, and it had been years since she had seen her. When she arrives at the train station, it isn’t even her aunt who comes to pick her up: it’s a brisk, efficient, unsentimental woman named Olive, who turns out to be Peg’s assistant (meaning she’s the one who actually runs the theater and tries to maintain something resembling a budget so the theater doesn’t go bankrupt when Peg gets carried away and tries to order things like costumes and scenery).
Vivian instantly fell in love with the crumbling theater (called the Lily Playhouse), her aunt, and the glamorous showgirls who work there. Vivian’s grandmother had taught her the nuances of fashion and clothing, as well as how to sew. As a result, Vivian is immediately able to make herself useful at the playhouse as the “Costume Designer”. Of course, they don’t have the budget for actual costumes so Vivian just has to make do with what they already have or buy scraps of fabric at a cheap store she finds in Brooklyn. They can’t afford to pay her for her time or services either, but her parents are sending her an allowance, and she loves that her ability to sew makes her popular with the showgirls.
In return, the showgirls introduce her to their life: poor and disreputable, but full of life and fun. The girls are shocked to find out that Vivian is still a virgin so they arrange to “take care of that” for her. They set her up with a married doctor who lives in a nice house, so he knows what he’s doing and he’s very gentle, but also has a tendency to describe everything he’s doing as he’s doing it, which Vivian finds to be a big turnoff.
Once that’s “taken care of” Vivian starts going out on the town with the other showgirls, mostly Cecilia, the most beautiful of the showgirls with a deep, husky voice who, while “claiming to be just 19” has already had more than her share of troubles and has been clearly taught that she’s only worth the sexual favors she can give men. Cecilia and Vivian party hard, getting drunk every night and sleeping with all kinds of men.
It’s not the kind of life I’ve ever envied, even when I was in college and society kept telling me that wild parties with lots of drugs and alcohol were what I was supposed to want. I have mixed feelings about the promiscuity in particular in this book because the feminist in me says, “You go, girl,” but the part of me that has had the threat of rape dangled over my head my whole life says, “What are you doing? Don’t you realize you’re asking for trouble?”
Turns out they do get into some trouble, although Vivian manages to escape the worst of it. She describes one time when Cecilia sensed what was coming and sent Vivian out of the room before things got ugly. She never talked about what happened, but she came out of the room with a black eye, brushing it off by saying one of the girls at the playhouse is good at covering up bruises. It doesn’t occur to Vivian until later to wonder how that girl got so good at covering up bruises…
Although Vivian knows there’s a war raging in Europe, she’s mostly oblivious until Edna Parker Watson, and her husband, Arthur Watson, show up at the Lily Playhouse. Edna is a famous actress who only does theater (no radio, and no movies). She and her husband live in London, and were just about to return there after Edna’s latest stint on Broadway when they got news that their townhouse had been demolished in the blitz.
So they’re stranded in New York with nowhere to go, so of course Aunt Peg invites them to stay at the Lily Playhouse. Turns out Peg, Olive, and Edna all met during WWI and are old friends.
With the famous Edna Parker Watson at the Lily Playhouse, they decide to put on a show worthy of their new star, despite the fact that the playhouse has only ever put on cheap, formulated musicals that are known for their entertainment value, rather than their quality.
So Peg’s estranged husband, Billy, shows up out of nowhere and agrees to write a show for them for free. He even agrees to let them keep the rights to the show, although he eventually reneges on that deal.
They decide to hold auditions for this new show (again, something they’ve never done), and they end up hiring a handsome, charismatic, carefree young man, named Anthony, who’s perfect for the part and Vivian ends up falling in love with him and having lots of great sex with him.
But one night Anthony goes to a charity function with Edna, leaving Vivian and Arthur free to go out on the town with Cecilia, at which point Vivian learns that Cecilia and Arthur having been having an affair. Cecilia says it doesn’t count because Arthur and Edna have an open relationship (she doesn’t call it that because I don’t think that term had been invented yet, but that’s essentially what she means). She claims Edna has a fling with a new man for every show she does, leading Vivian to believe that Edna and Anthony have been carrying on an affair under her nose.
So when Vivian finds herself outside in the cold, cuddled up against Anthony and Cecilia for warmth, Vivian doesn’t resist when Anthony kisses her. They then go to a hotel room for a ménage à trois, and by the time Vivian gets back to the playhouse, Olive and Peg are still up because they already know she was with Cecilia and Arthur because someone took photos of them and a famous gossip columnist is threatening to print the photos, along with Vivian’s name, which will of course completely ruin Vivian’s reputation.
Olive and Vivian go to meet with the gossip columnist and manage to convince him to keep her name out of the story, but Edna and Arthur already know what’s happened and so of course Vivian’s budding relationships with both of them are shattered. She can’t bear to stay new New York any longer so she makes a panicked phone call to her brother, Walter, in the middle of the night, begging him to take her home. Walter is “the good one” of the two, and had enlisted in the Navy when he saw that America was headed to war. He happened to be stationed in New York, which is why Vivian called him and he came. Walter didn’t have a car of his own, so he had to bring a friend who had a car. This friend is never introduced, but because Walter is busy tearing her a new one over everything she’s done, he gets to hear everything. Vivian just takes all the abuse her brother throws at her, knowing she deserves it, but she isn’t prepared for to driver to say that it’s too bad a guy like Walter has a sister who’s “such a dirty little whore.” That hurt. A lot.
Some other unimportant things happen over the next 25 years or so, during which Vivian never gets married, but she doesn’t remain celibate either. She’s clear that she enjoys sex and never had any intention of living like a nun. She admits she had a few instances where she misjudged her partner had suffered a “rough night”, but she rode them out, and it didn’t deter her from getting back out there.
I like that Vivian explicitly says she doesn’t think her promiscuity makes her a bad person (despite what society says), but she does say she has a darkness inside her and that sex satisfies that darkness.
What darkness? What is she talking about? What “darkness” could be satisfied by sex other than lust? I don’t think Gilbert showed any evidence that Vivian was inherently bad or selfish, just that she made a stupid mistake as a young girl. Who hasn’t? How does that mean she has a “darkness”?
More than two decades after the war, Vivian is at an event celebrating the soldiers of WWII, as well as the entertainers (like Vivian) who kept up their morale. She’s approached by a WWII veteran who turns out to be none other than the driver who made that awful comment about her all those years ago. She’s horrified because she’s still deeply hurt by his comment and the whole incident. She runs to her Aunt Peg, who is decidedly unsympathetic because at this point, the driver (whose name is Frank) is a veteran who was on a ship that got hit by a kamikaze pilot and he was blown off the ship, into the water, suffered burns on over half his body, and had to tread water in an ocean that was literally on fire for two hours before getting rescued.
As a result, he hasn’t been able to touch anyone at all since (his daughter was conceived right before he enlisted), and he can’t sit still or stay inside for long periods without getting antsy. He also has trouble sleeping, so he has a tendency to call Vivian in the middle of the night and ask if she wants to go for a walk.
So they spend years going for long walks all over NYC in the middle of the night just talking. Vivian admits she was in love with Frank, but as to Angela’s question of “what were you to my father,” she admits that only Frank would have been able to answer that.
What did you read this week? Any other delightful, feminist, historical fiction audiobooks?