Chances are you don’t know a wonderful debut novel published almost 20 years ago about lobster fishing called “Stern Men.” But you know its author: Elizabeth Gilbert. Her 2006 book, “Eat, Pray, Love,” became one of the best-selling memoirs of the modern age and effectively eclipsed her earlier, better work. In addition to making her a fortune — 12 million copies in print, plus a movie starring Julia Roberts — “Eat, Pray, Love” launched Gilbert into the Oprahsphere from which she hawks inspiring advice and branded lip gloss, T-shirts and perfume.
When she returned to fiction in 2013, Gilbert shifted her attention to the 19th century and wrote “The Signature of All Things” about a strong-willed female botanist making her way in an era of Earth-shattering scientific discoveries. It was a daring, invigorating move that forced Gilbert to re-explore many of her feminist and romantic themes in a completely different context.
Now she has written a third novel, “City of Girls,” and it’s another big work of historical fiction about another independent-minded woman navigating the crosscurrents of cultural upheaval. While “The Signature of All Things” was rooted in the world of 19th-century science, “City of Girls” is woven into the excitement of mid-20th-century New York. Fans of Jennifer Egan’s last novel, “Manhattan Beach,” will recognize the same setting and time period, though the tone here is humorous rather than noirish.
Gilbert’s narrator is an old woman named Vivian, looking back at herself as a naive 19-year-old who had just failed out of Vassar College. (She ranked 361 in a class of 362, surpassing only a girl who contracted polio.) Baffled by a daughter with no matrimonial or professional prospects, Vivian’s parents send her off to an eccentric aunt who owns a crumbling theater in New York. Light-years from Broadway, Aunt Peg’s Lily Playhouse offers cookie-cutter musical comedies written on the fly for working-class folk. Vivian has no interest in acting, but she adores fine clothes, and she’s a whiz with a sewing machine. Always on the lookout for talent, her aunt makes her the theater’s costumer. And so what should have been a mere summer interlude became a whole life.
Unfortunately, what should have been a mere 300-page novel became a 470-page tome. The best and worst thing that can be said about “City of Girls” is that it’s perfectly pleasant, the kind of book one wouldn’t mind finding in a vacation condo during a rainy week. In exchange for a series of diverting adventures, it demands only stamina from its readers.
Not that it’s without charm. Gilbert definitely knows her way around the vintage dress shop. So many outfits are sharply described in these pages that rather than put this novel on a shelf, you should hang it in a closet. And she’s got a good ear for the arch repartee of 1940s comedy. In the best passages, her witty dialogue sparkles like diamonds in champagne.
But this is a story that takes a half-hour to travel a New York minute. And that leisurely pace pushes hard against the novel’s form. On the opening page, Vivian receives a letter from a woman in her late 60s. “I wonder,” this mystery correspondent asks, “if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father.” We’re meant to believe that the entire text of “City of Girls” is Vivian’s response to that request. When the answer finally came on page 399, I had forgotten the question. At this rate, I worry the woman who asked it might have already passed away.
Still, the first half is full of entertaining scenes spun with the quick-witted spirit of Rosalind Russell. The central action involves a great British actress, an old friend of Aunt Peg, who gets stranded in New York by the war in Europe. In exchange for room and board, she agrees to star in a souped-up production at the Lily theater called “City of Girls.” The show is a ridiculous melodrama about fortunes lost and found, a street-smart kid who gets the girl, and a madame with a heart of gold, but Gilbert belts out the play’s creation and performance with just the right brassy verve.
Meanwhile, Vivian is initiated into a life she could never have imagined back with her stodgy parents. “Lily Playhouse was unlike any world I’d ever inhabited,” she says. “It was a living animation of glamour and grit and mayhem and fun.” Without a curfew or any supervision beyond her aunt’s bohemian encouragement, she lives above the theater with an adventurous showgirl who teaches her how to drink, how to flirt and how to bed as many men as possible. “I wanted to be around sex constantly,” she says. “I had a lot of time to make up for.”
One of Vivian’s sexcapades eventually sparks a crisis that disrupts several lives and leaves a wound that won’t be healed for decades. But the issue of female pleasure becomes the novel’s central, surprisingly pleasureless theme. “Sleeping with men — lots of men — that’s more or less my way of life,” she insists. Again and again, this 90-year-old narrator explains that she enjoyed casual encounters with strangers “wherever we could find a spot.” She felt it was her prerogative. “Life is both dangerous and fleeting, and thus there is no point in denying yourself pleasure or adventure while you are here.”
But alas, that contention never infuses the novel with much erotic energy. Vivian might as well be telling us how much she enjoys bowling. After her hilarious deflowering, there’s a flatness to almost every subsequent tryst, which argues for the right to sexual relations but not the frisson of sexual relations. She may want to be Anaïs Nin, but she sounds like a very enlightened school nurse.
Novels so rarely get better that I was shocked to discover that the ending of “City of Girls” is genuinely moving. I can’t tell you anything more without spoiling the long-delayed mystery of the plot, but it’s a delight to see Gilbert finally invest these characters with some real emotional heft and complexity. Once the shiny Noel Coward patter drains away, Vivian embraces someone flailed by life, and that willingness to bear another’s pain transforms her, filling her with a kind of love she’s never experienced before.
There’s a poignant lesson here, but, oddly, it has nothing to do with sleeping with as many people as possible.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Thursday at 7 p.m., Elizabeth Gilbert will be at Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW, Washington. For ticket information, contact Politics & Prose at 202-364-1919.
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverhead. 470 pp. $28