Elizabeth Gilbert sets her new novel in New York's theatre world of the 1940s, creating a sparkling, cocktail fizz of a book.
It’s 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has left home after a lacklustre performance at Vassar College to live with her flamboyant Aunt Peg in New York. Peg runs a down-at-heel theatre called the Lily Playhouse, home to some rather cheesy musicals. The theatre's troops – dancers, musicians, writers, actors, theatre managers – live on site, making for a cosy, bohemian ambience.
Vivian throws herself into theatre life and soon makes friends with actress Celia Ray. The two enjoy New York’s night life and have various sexual adventures, not to mention the odd misadventure. When Aunt Peg’s estranged husband turns up on the scene, he comes up with the idea for a show that is eventually called City of Girls. The theatre imports the posh British actress Edna Parker Watson and the show ends up being a hit, lifting the flailing Lily Playhouse out of trouble and putting it on a good financial footing.
Then disaster strikes. Vivian unwittingly becomes involved in a scandal and must get her disapproving brother to bail her out. She experiences shame and humiliation, and is sent packing home.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up to The Signature of All Things is a light, frothy affair, almost a feel good story. The bulk of the novel is full of humour, with a well rounded cast: chancers, rogues, bright-young-things, frumpy lesbians and street wise, cocksure young men. Gilbert writes with a joy and elan which is infectious. The theme of the novel is how we deal with shame and the inevitable mistakes we all make. Vivian learns, with the painful passage of time, that everyone of us carries a dark, secret history, and that we must forgive ourselves, grow, and ultimately become better people.
A small caveat: the story is perhaps a bit long, with narrator Vivian speeding through three decades in the last hundred or so pages, giving the novel a bit of a lopsided feel. Otherwise, a highly enjoyable, cocktail fizz of a book that Gilbert fans will lap up.
City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Bloomsbury. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books