Elizabeth Gilbert is most famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love – a book that it would never occur to me to read. Then I came across such good reviews, and tempting summaries, of City of Girls – it’s a novel rather than the memoir of EPL – that I became curious. I downloaded the beginning onto my Kindle, and as soon as I read this early passage I knew I was going to read the whole book. What could be more up my street?I boarded the train wearing a chipper little blue rayon dress with a skylark print, yellow traceries around the neckline, a moderately slim skirt, and deep pockets set in at the hips. I remember this dress so vividly because, first of all, I never forget what anyone is wearing, ever, and also I’d sewn the thing myself.
And fair play, Gilbert and her protagonist make good on it - they heroically tell us an awful lot about everyone’s clothes. And also costumes. Because Vivian has one of the most appealing setups for a novel I could ever imagine: It is 1940, and she is on the train, above, to go to New York and live with her unconventional Aunt Peg who owns, runs and lives in a rundown theatre in mid Manhattan. Vivian is 19,and has been thrown out of college: ‘I don’t think anyone could ever accuse me of having attended Vassar’. Well! The dream life for many of us.
Shortly after arriving she meets the showgirl Celia.
“You and me should dress up alike sometime and go out on the town,” Celia said, in that low Bronx growl that was also a purr. “We could get ourselves into some real good trouble.”
My Aunt Peg—my legal guardian, at this point, please remember—she heard this illicit-sounding invite and said, “Say, girls, that sounds fun.”And off we go – the theatre is putting on shows, Vivian is making costumes, and the girls are going out on the town and having a wild time. There’s a touch of the Noel Streatfeilds – there’s even a sensible tweed-clad figure called Olive who tells people to behave themselves and get enough sleep: always a stalwart of Streatfeild.
We discover the difference between dancers and showgirls:
Dancers never showgirled, because they weren’t tall enough or beautiful enough, and never would be. No amount of makeup or creative padding could turn a moderately attractive and medium-sized dancer with a fairly decent figure into the spectacle of Amazonian gorgeousness that was a midcentury New York City showgirl.
I loved this description of part of the shows:
[She] had invented a dance called the “boggle-boggle,” which our audiences loved, and so we put it in every performance. And why wouldn’t they love it? It was nothing but a free-for-all of girls boggling about the stage with the most jiggling of body parts imaginable. “Boggle-boggle!” the audience would shout during the encores, and the girls would accommodate them. Sometimes we would see neighborhood children on the sidewalks doing the boggle-boggle on their way to school. Let’s just say it was our cultural legacy.There are wonderful descriptions of the nightclubs and jazz clubs of the era, and the people who populated them.
Then a new character appears: a noted British actress who is trapped in New York by WW2. She is
dressed in the single most stylish outfit I’d ever seen on a woman. She was wearing a peacock-blue serge jacket—double-breasted, with two lines of gold buttons marching up the front—with a high collar trimmed in gold braid. She had on tailored dark gray trousers with a bit of flare at the bottom, and glossy black wingtip shoes… [she had] a particular style that I might call “Little Lord Fauntleroy meets French salon hostess.”With her on board, the Lily Theatre might create a hit – and Peg’s longlost husband turns up to help out.
So this was all splendid – a mixture of Ngaio Marsh’s theatrical mysteries, and The Dud Avocado. I was reading it and thinking how much I loved it, planning on giving it to people, recommending it, choosing it for my bookgroup. But for me it fell apart in the final third.
Vivian and her friend Celia are living the life of riley, and this involves a lot of sexual freedom – a plotline I had heard that Gilbert was very keen to create. She said she wanted her female characters to be liberated, to have full sexual lives without guilt and shame. But that’s not what happens: two-thirds of the way through Vivian does something silly. It is wrong and regrettable but, y’know - she didn’t burn down an orphanage (oh, spoiler). But the character gets jumped on from a great height: she is super-punished for what happens, out of all proportion to the offence/mistake. Her life changes very dramatically. Now I presume Gilbert is saying that this IS what would happen to someone who made a mistake, but the actual facts of the matter just don’t add up to me. And if she wanted to show these happy, free girls, why give them such a terrible retribution? To me this smacks of those male authors who are so horrified and shocked by violence to women that they have to describe the most terrible crimes in vile detail - Stieg Larsson for example.
And then the final third seems as if it came in from a different book altogether - it has a strange structure, and needed a good edit in my view, and contained another character who had to punish Vivian, but then poor old him – he felt bad about it afterwards.
Normally I wouldn’t blog on a book where I disliked part of it so much. But Gilbert isn’t going to be bothered by my views, and I DID like the theatre days so much… and I’m sure many people wouldn’t find the last section as jarring as I did. (And, also - just look at all these pictures and imagine what a good time I had finding them.)
So just to concentrate on the good bits:
I love the ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy meets salon hostess’ above, which reminded me of Cigarette in the terrible Ouida book Under Two Flags (I read it so you don’t have to) and the Donizetti opera Fille du Regiment.
I think #clothesgoals are important for all of us, and for one recent summer my goal was ‘Katherine Hepburn pretending she didn’t like being a filmstar’. Last week I created the hashtag #dresslikeanarchaeologist after reading the latest Elly Griffiths book, and a sumptuous few days resulted on Twitter where many people produced excellent pictures and ideas.
That was based on the excellent (and mostly ironic) #dresslikeanarchitect – all minimalist perfect wool trousers, brogues, and cashmere in perfect neutral shades. My trouble is I want to #dresslikeanarchitect half the time, but also want to #dresslikealadypiratedetective. Life is complex is it not, fellow fashion fans?
Young woman in black with a fan is the Hollywood actress Barbara Stanwyck when she was a Ziegfeld girl.
Day dress such as Vivian might have worn, Vogue 1940 from the Clover Vintage tumblr.
The showgirl is a colorized photograph from Wikimedia Commons.
Girl with fringed shawl is Doris Eaton Travis, same source.
The jazz club picture shows Wesley Prince, Oscar Moore, and Nat King Cole at Cafe Zanzibar in New York, from the wonderful William Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress.
Showgirls playing cards backstage looks like it could be an illo from the book. From the NYPL
Menu for Café Zanzibar from NYPL.
The final picture shows Blanche Bates playing Cigarette in Under Two Flags.