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'City of Girls' review: Unbeatable beach read from 'Eat, Pray, Love' author Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "City of Girls."

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "City of Girls."   Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

CITY OF GIRLS, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Riverhead, 470 pp., $28.

At the start of Elizabeth Gilbert’s much-anticipated new novel, "City of Girls," the year is 1940, and Vivian Morris is a Vassar dropout shipped off by her well-to-do family to live with her offbeat Aunt Peg in Manhattan. To a pretty 19-year-old with no discernible ambition but an eye for all that’s beautiful, sensuous and frivolous — "a girl so freshly hatched there was practically yolk in my hair” — her arrival in the big city practically shocks her into consciousness, propelling her into a life worth telling about.

Vivian’s Aunt Peg owns the Lily Playhouse Theatre, a “grandiose” yet “crumbling” old palace that puts on schlock for its working-class neighborhood audience. Still, this world dazzles Vivian. The Lily attracts a wondrous hodgepodge of misfits: a tough-as-nails stunner of a showgirl named Celia; a cantankerous playwright who greets each day with doom and gloom; and a friend of Peg’s, Edna Parker Watson, an esteemed stage actress with impeccable style, who finds refuge at the Lily with her handsome lout of a husband after their London home is reduced to rubble during the Blitz.

Living above the theater in a fully furnished apartment — the stuff of fairy tales for young people moving to New York now — Vivian embarks on a series of wanton adventures glued to the side of fast-living Celia, soaking up gin and male attention in one swanky nightclub after another.

Months after Vivian’s arrival, the Lily puts on a play that’s worthy of Edna Parker Watson’s star power. That play — "City of Girls" — reverses the fortunes of the shambling  theater and turns it into a destination for New York’s elite. Gilbert unfurls the premiere of the play in rapturous, breathless chapters that, in a tour de force of literary mimicry, are punctuated with reviews by Brooks Atkinson from The New York Times and Walter Winchell for the now-defunct New York Daily Mirror.

The good days last just a little bit longer. When reflecting upon her adventures in show business and sex, Vivian is so prone to hyperbole she can appear to be hooked on hallucinogens; to her, everyone and everything in her new life is cranked up to impossible extremes: New York City is a synapse-frying wonderland orgy of booze and handsome men, Celia is a once-in-a-generation beauty, Aunt Peg is a larger-than-life bon vivant, Edna Parker Watson possesses unlimited stores of otherworldly charisma, while her husband is the most doltish human to ever live.

This isn’t a criticism — a first move to the big city is an extreme experience for a young person, especially a beautiful, moneyed 19-year-old starting out in pre-WWII Manhattan. But just as the endless nights of waking up hung over in makeup-streaked sheets start to become monotonous — both to Vivian and to the reader — the fantasy comes to an abrupt end, when Vivian is mixed up in a ruinous scandal splashed all over the gossip rags.

The city spits Vivian out — temporarily, at least — thus setting off a surprising, more sober second half to her story, as World War II transforms the city and the world. It’s no spoiler to say this isn’t a novel about an indecorous woman’s descent into disgrace — Vivian harbors no shame in her checkered past; it’s her taste for sex and adventure, independence and rebellion, that makes her life worth following over seven decades.

For fans of Gilbert’s best-known work, "Eat, Pray, Love," there are no concrete similarities  with her juggernaut memoir. Yet "City of Girls" embraces some of the same themes: the power of a woman breaking from a traditional path, and the wisdom of taking true, two-handed joy in the pleasures that life offers up. The only other similarity? "City of Girls" is an unbeatable beach read, loaded with humor and insight.

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