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City of girls
2019
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Author Notes
Elizabeth Gilbert was born in Waterbury, Connecticut on July 18, 1969. She received an undergraduate degree in political science from New York University. After college, she spent several years traveling around the country, working odd jobs and writing short stories. Early in her career, she also worked as a journalist for such publications as Spin, GQ and The New York Times Magazine. An article she wrote in GQ about her experiences bartending on the Lower East Side eventually became the basis for the movie Coyote Ugly. <p> She writes both fiction and nonfiction and her books include the short story collection Pilgrims, Stern Men, The Last American Man, Committed, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and The Signature of All Things. Her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, was adapted into a movie starring Julia Roberts. She will be featured at the Sydney Writers Festival in March 2016. <p> (Bowker Author Biography)
First Chapter or Excerpt
ONE   In the summer of 1940, when I was nineteen years old and an idiot, my parents sent me to live with my Aunt Peg, who owned a theater company in New York City. I had recently been excused from Vassar College, on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams. I was not quite as dumb as my grades made me look, but apparently it really doesn't help if you don't study. Looking back on it now, I cannot fully recall what I'd been doing with my time during those many hours that I ought to have spent in class, but-knowing me-I suppose I was terribly preoccupied with my appearance. (I do remember that I was trying to master a "reverse roll" that year-a hairstyling technique that, while infinitely important to me and also quite challenging, was not very Vassar.) I'd never found my place at Vassar, although there were places to be found there. All different types of girls and cliques existed at the school, but none of them stirred my curiosity, nor did I see myself reflected in any of them. There were political revolutionaries at Vassar that year wearing their serious black trousers and discussing their opinions on international foment, but I wasn't interested in international foment. (I'm still not. Although I did take notice of the black trousers, which I found intriguingly chic-but only if the pockets didn't bulge.) And there were girls at Vassar who were bold academic explorers, destined to become doctors and lawyers long before many women did that sort of thing. I should have been interested in them, but I wasn't. (I couldn't tell any of them apart, for one thing. They all wore the same shapeless wool skirts that looked as though they'd been constructed out of old sweaters, and that just made my spirits low.) It's not like Vassar was completely devoid of glamour. There were some sentimental, doe-eyed medievalists who were quite pretty, and some artistic girls with long and self-important hair, and some highbred socialite types with profiles like Italian greyhounds-but I didn't befriend any of them. Maybe it's because I sensed that everybody at this school was smarter than me. (This was not entirely youthful paranoia; I uphold to this day that everybody there was smarter than me.) To be honest, I didn't understand what I was doing at college, aside from fulfilling a destiny whose purpose nobody had bothered explaining to me. From earliest childhood, I'd been told that I would attend Vassar, but nobody had told me why. What was it all for? What was I meant to get out of it, exactly? And why was I living in this cabbagey little dormitory room with an earnest future social reformer? I was so fed up with learning by that time, anyhow. I'd already studied for years at the Emma Willard School for Girls in Troy, New York, with its brilliant, all-female faculty of Seven Sisters graduates-and wasn't that enough? I'd been at boarding school since I was twelve years old, and maybe I felt that I had done my time. How many more books does a person need to read in order to prove that she can read a book? I already knew who Charlemagne was, so leave me alone, is how I saw it. Also, not long into my doomed freshman year at Vassar, I had discovered a bar in Poughkeepsie that offered cheap beer and live jazz deep into the night. I'd figured out a way to sneak off campus to patronize this bar (my cunning escape plan involving an unlocked lavatory window and a hidden bicycle-believe me, I was the bane of the house warden), thereby making it difficult for me to absorb Latin conjugations first thing in the morning because I was usually hungover. There were other obstacles, as well. I had all those cigarettes to smoke, for instance. In short: I was busy. Therefore, out of a class of 362 bright young Vassar women, I ended up ranked at 361-a fact that caused my father to remark in horror, "Dear God, what was that other girl doing?" (Contracting polio as it turned out, the poor thing.) So Vassar sent me home-fair enough-and kindly requested that I not return. My mother had no idea what to do with me. We didn't have the closest relationship even under the best of circumstances. She was a keen horsewoman, and given that I was neither a horse nor fascinated by horses, we'd never had much to talk about. Now I'd embarrassed her so severely with my failure that she could scarcely stand the sight of me. In contrast to me, my mother had performed quite well at Vassar College, thank you very much. (Class of 1915. History and French.) Her legacy-as well as her generous yearly donations-had secured my admission to that hallowed institution, and now look at me. Whenever she passed me in the hallways of our house, she would nod at me like a career diplomat. Polite, but chilly. My father didn't know what to do with me, either, though he was busy running his hematite mine and didn't overly concern himself with the problem of his daughter. I had disappointed him, true, but he had bigger worries. He was an industrialist and an isolationist, and the escalating war in Europe was spooking him about the future of his business. So I suppose he was distracted with all that. As for my older brother, Walter, he was off doing great things at Princeton, and giving no thought to me, other than to disapprove of my irresponsible behavior. Walter had never done an irresponsible thing in his life. He'd been so respected by his peers back in boarding school that his nickname had been-and I am not making this up-the Ambassador. He was now studying engineering because he wanted to build infrastructure that would help people around the world. (Add it to my catalogue of sins that I, by contrast, was not quite sure I even knew what the word "infrastructure" meant.) Although Walter and I were close in age-separated by a mere two years-we had not been playmates since we were quite little. My brother had put away his childish things when he was about nine years old, and among those childish things was me. I wasn't part of his life, and I knew it. My own friends were moving forward with their lives, too. They were heading off to college, work, marriage, and adulthood-all subjects that I had no interest in or understanding of. So there was nobody around to care about me or entertain me. I was bored and listless. My boredom felt like hunger pains. I spent the first two weeks of June hitting a tennis ball against the side of our garage while whistling "Little Brown Jug" again and again, until finally my parents got sick of me and shipped me off to live with my aunt in the city, and honestly, who could blame them? Sure, they might have worried that New York would turn me into a communist or a dope fiend, but anything had to be better than listening to your daughter bounce a tennis ball against a wall for the rest of eternity. So that's how I came to the city, Angela, and that's where it all began. They sent me to New York on the train-and what a terrific train it was, too. The Empire State Express, straight out of Utica. A gleaming, chrome, delinquent-daughter delivery device. I said my polite farewells to Mother and Dad, and handed my baggage over to a Red Cap, which made me feel important. I sat in the diner car for the whole ride, sipping malted milk, eating pears in syrup, smoking cigarettes, and paging through magazines. I knew I was being banished, but still . . . in style! Trains were so much better back then, Angela. I promise that I will try my best in these pages not to go on and on about how much better everything was back in my day. I always hated hearing old people yammering on like this when I was young. (Nobody cares! Nobody cares about your Golden Age, you blathering goat!) And I do want to assure you: I'm aware that many things were not better in the 1940s. Underarm deodorants and air-conditioning were woefully inadequate, for instance, so everybody stank like crazy, especially in the summer, and also we had Hitler. But trains were unquestionably better back then. When was the last time you got to enjoy a malted milk and a cigarette on a train? 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. A fine job I'd done with it, too. The swing of it-hitting just at midcalf-was flirty and effective. I remember having stitched extra shoulder pads into that dress, in the desperate hope of resembling Joan Crawford-though I'm not sure the effect worked. With my modest cloche hat and my borrowed-from-Mother plain blue handbag (filled with cosmetics, cigarettes, and not much else), I looked less like a screen siren and mostly like what I actually was: a nineteen-year-old virgin, on her way to visit a relative. Accompanying this nineteen-year-old virgin to New York City were two large suitcases-one filled with my clothes, all folded neatly in tissue, and the other packed with fabrics, trimmings, and sewing supplies, so that I could make more clothes. Also joining me was a sturdy crate containing my sewing machine-a heavy and unwieldy beast, awkward to transport. But it was my demented, beautiful soul-twin, without which I could not live. So along with me it came. That sewing machine-and everything that it subsequently brought to my life-was all thanks to Grandmother Morris, so letÕs talk about her for just a moment. You may read the word "grandmother," Angela, and perhaps your mind summons up some image of a sweet little old lady with white hair. That wasn't my grandmother. My grandmother was a tall, passionate, aging coquette with dyed mahogany hair who moved through life in a plume of perfume and gossip, and who dressed like a circus show. She was the most colorful woman in the world-and I mean that in all definitions of the word "colorful." Grandmother wore crushed velvet gowns in elaborate colors-colors that she did not call pink, or burgundy, or blue, like the rest of the imagination-impoverished public, but instead referred to as "ashes of rose" or "cordovan" or "della Robbia." She had pierced ears, which most respectable ladies did not have back then, and she owned several plush jewelry boxes filled with an endless tumble of cheap and expensive chains and earrings and bracelets. She had a motoring costume for her afternoon drives in the country, and her hats were so big they required their own seats at the theater. She enjoyed kittens and mail-order cosmetics; she thrilled over tabloid accounts of sensational murders; and she was known to write romantic verse. But more than anything else, my grandmother loved drama. She went to see every play and performance that came through town, and also adored the moving pictures. I was often her date, as she and I possessed exactly the same taste. (Grandmother Morris and I both gravitated toward stories where innocent girls in airy gowns were abducted by dangerous men with sinister hats, and then rescued by other men with proud chins.) Obviously, I loved her. The rest of the family, though, didn't. My grandmother embarrassed everyone but me. She especially embarrassed her daughter-in-law (my mother), who was not a frivolous person, and who never stopped wincing at Grandmother Morris, whom she once referred to as "that swoony perpetual adolescent." Mother, needless to say, was not known to write romantic verse. But it was Grandmother Morris who taught me how to sew. My grandmother was a master seamstress. (She'd been taught by her grandmother, who had managed to rise from Welsh immigrant maidservant to affluent American lady of means in just one generation, thanks in no small part to her cleverness with a needle.) My grandmother wanted me to be a master at sewing, too. So when we weren't eating taffy together at the picture shows, or reading magazine articles aloud to each other about the white slave trade, we were sewing. And that was serious business. Grandmother Morris wasn't afraid to demand excellence from me. She would sew ten stitches on a garment, and then make me sew the next ten-and if mine weren't as perfect as hers, she would rip mine out and make me do it again. She steered me through the handling of such impossible materials as netting and lace, until I wasn't intimidated by any fabric anymore, no matter how temperamental. And structure! And padding! And tailoring! By the time I was twelve, I could sew a corset for you (whalebones and all) just as handily as you please-even though nobody but Grandmother Morris had needed a whalebone corset since about 1910. Stern as she could be at the sewing machine, I did not chafe under her rule. Her criticisms stung but did not ache. I was fascinated enough by clothing to want to learn, and I knew that she only wished to foster my aptitude. Her praise was rare, but it fed my fingers. I grew deft. When I was thirteen, Grandmother Morris bought me the sewing machine that would someday accompany me to New York City by train. It was a sleek, black Singer 201 and it was murderously powerful (you could sew leather with it; I could have upholstered a Bugatti with that thing!). To this day, I've never been given a better gift. I took the Singer with me to boarding school, where it gave me enormous power within that community of privileged girls who all wanted to dress well, but who did not necessarily have the skills to do so. Once word got out around school that I could sew anything-and truly, I could-the other girls at Emma Willard were always knocking at my door, begging me to let out their waists for them, or to fix a seam, or to take their older sister's formal dress from last season and make it fit them right now. I spent those years bent over that Singer like a machine gunner, and it was worth it. I became popular-which is the only thing that matters, really, at boarding school. Or anywhere. Excerpted from City of Girls: A Novel by Elizabeth Gilbert All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

in advance copies of "City of Girls," Elizabeth Gilbert provided a note to her readers, claiming she wanted her new novel to "go down like a champagne cocktail - light and bright, crisp and fun." Gilbert's had an adoring fan base ever since publishing "Eat, Pray, Love," her 2006 memoir. But she must know that she's written a more complicated and ambivalent book than the frothy concoction her note proposed as a feel-good alternative to such highbrow weepies as "Anna Karenina": "Not even in fiction, it seems, is a woman allowed to seek out sexual pleasure without ending up under the wheels of a train." Fair enough. But how are we supposed to respond, then, when her narrator, in the throes of her first serious orgasm at the age of 20, "screamed as though I were being run over by a train"? Vivian Morris, who's just flunked out of Vassar, probably doesn't get her own allusion; Gilbert surely does. And the language in the rest of this scene hardly suggests a lighthearted joy ride: "I bit into his hand the way a wounded soldier bites on a bullet. And then... I more or less died." Is she having fun yet? True, in the first half of "City of Girls" we get plenty of reckless lovemaking, boozing and nightclubbing, along with a broadly comic account of Vivian's deflowering - "Hold tight, for now I shall penetrate you" - and some heavily researched nostalgia. In the summer of 1940, after her debacle at Vassar, Vivian moves to New York to live with her aunt, a predictably plucky lesbian who runs a down-at-the-heels theater troupe, and the Old New York signifiers come at us thick and fast. In company with the once-famous debutante Brenda Frazier, Vivian goes to 52nd Street to hear Louis Prima, and hangs out with her aunt's showgirls at Toots Shor's, El Morocco and the Stork Club. "We gave the jump to some playboys; we drank rank after rank of cocktails on other people's dime; we had tumults of fun; and the next thing you knew we were trying to get home before the sun came up, feeling as if we were swimming upstream through bilgewater." That metaphor provides a welcome splash of realism, as does Vivian's failure to remember much about hearing Billie Holiday sing: "I had my period and I was in a sulky mood because a boy I liked had just left with another girl.") When Vivian's aunt finally has a hit show - called "City of Girls" - Gilbert replicates notices in the styles of Brooks Atkinson, Heywood Broun and Walter Winchell, and an excerpt from a New Yorker profile of its star by Alexander Woollcott. Her evocation of the bygone theater world suggests such backstage movie classics as "Stage Door" and "42nd Street" - and perhaps the Crummies theater company in "Nicholas Nickleby" - and her bygone theater people talk just like bygone theater people: "Very much of little consequence has transpired since last we met, my dear. Let's sit down for a drink and talk about none of it." "But of course he's a playboy, darling. What handsome man worth his salt is not?" In fact, one of them echoes the well-known advice - "The customers out there want to like you. Always remember that, kid" - that the old pro Bebe Daniels gives to the tremulous Ruby Keeler: "Remember that this audience didn't come here tonight because they want to hate you. They came because they want to love you." The tumults of fun die down after Vivian misbehaves, in one bed, with a showgirl and the husband of a revered actress, and then has to absorb a wide tonal palette of verbal abuse: from the slang-slinging Winchell in person ("Getting tangled up with somebody's bum husband and a hotto-trot lezzie - that's no way for a girl from a good family to live"), from the imperious actress herself ("You will never be a person of the slightest significance") and from the man who drives her back home in disgrace to upstate New York ("dirty little whore"). This is the halfway point of the book, after which Vivian's real life begins - and the narrative slackens. "The years passed," she tells us. Later, "The years passed like they always do." She goes back to New York, sets up as a maker of bridal gowns, lives platonically with her female business partner, finds the love of her life - a World War II veteran whose PTSD precludes any physical contact with her - and has nostrings sexual escapades with a variety of other men, notable only for the vagueness of the impressions they leave. One is "an absolute lamb"; another is "so dear and attractive." The inevitable bad patches are equally vague. When "things got rougher and more dicey than I might have preferred ... I rode it out like an experienced sailor in a bad squall. I don't know how else to explain it." O.K., fine: Vivian doesn't claim to be a writer. Although she is purportedly writing this apologia for her long life, in the present day, as an "ancient woman still tottering around New York City, absolutely refusing to abandon either her life or her real estate." It's addressed to someone named Angela, whom she hardly knows - the reader has no idea who she is - and who's written to ask about Vivian's relations with "my father." Vivian doesn't get around to identifying Angela's father until Page 400, when a hitherto nameless minor character takes center stage, but Angela's inquiry is more than just a contrived prompt. Vivian's rambling recollections eventually reveal a hidden coherence: The novel turns out to be the selfportrait of a woman whose truest intimacy is with her own being. "There was a place within my imagination so fathomlessly deep that the light of the real world could never touch it. Friendship could not reach it.... Awe and joy could not reach it. This hidden part of me could only be reached through sexual intercourse. And when a man went to that darkest, secret place within me, I felt as though I had landed in the very beginning of myself." Mystical narcissism? Or radical honesty about the limits of human relationships. Either way, this doesn't sound much like a sparkling, high-spirited entertainment. Nor does Gilbert offer a conventionally satisfying resolution: Vivian's arrival at a self-knowing selfsufficiency doesn't have quite the oomph of a heroine throwing herself under a train. (Or, for that matter, of a heroine marrying Mr. Darcy.) By the conclusion, Vivian is doing all right-at her age, "tottering" comes with the territory - which forecloses the possibility of tragic grandeur. (King Lear was doing all right too, when he took early retirement. But that was just Act I.) Paradoxically, this open-endedness, this refusal of received literary templates, is what makes "City of Girls" worth reading. It's not a simple-minded polemic about sexual freedom and not an operatic downer; rather, it's the story of a conflicted, solitary woman who's made an independent life as best she can. If the usual narrative shapes don't fit her experience - and they don't fit most lives - neither she nor her creator seems to be worrying about it. Paradoxically, the novel's refused of received literary templates is what makes it worth reading. DAVID gates is the author, most recently, of the story collection "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me."

  Publishers Weekly Review

Gilbert (The Signature of All Things) begins her beguiling tale of an innocent young woman discovering the excitements and pleasures of 1940 New York City with a light touch, as her heroine, Vivian Morris, romps through the city. Gradually the story deepens into a psychologically keen narrative about Vivian's search for independence as she indulges her free spirit and sexuality. Freshly expelled from Vassar for not attending any classes, 19-year-old Vivian is sent by her parents to stay with her aunt Peggy Buell in Manhattan. Peg runs a scruffy theater that offers gaudy musical comedies to its unsophisticated patrons. As WWII rages in Europe, Vivian is oblivious to anything but the wonder behind the stage, as she becomes acquainted with the players in a new musical called City of Girls, including the louche leading man with whom she falls in love with passionate abandon. Vivian flits through the nightclubs El Morocco, the Diamond Horseshoe, and the Latin Quarter, where she hears Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Prima. Drinking heavily and scooting into the arms of numerous men, one night at the Stork Club she meets Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist, who plays a pivotal role in the tabloid scandal in which Vivian becomes embroiled. Vivian's voice-irreverent, witty, robust with slang-gradually darkens with guilt when she receives a devastating comeuppance. Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the harsh truths of existence as the country plunges into WWII. Vivian-originally reckless and selfish, eventually thoughtful and humane-is the perfect protagonist for this novel, a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER!<br> <br> From the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat Pray Love and The Signature of All Things , a delicious novel of glamour, sex, and adventure, about a young woman discovering that you don't have to be a good girl to be a good person.<br> <br> "A spellbinding novel about love, freedom, and finding your own happiness." - PopSugar<br> <br> "Intimate and richly sensual, razzle-dazzle with a hint of danger." - USA Today <br> <br> "Pairs well with a cocktail...or two." - TheSkimm <br> <br> "Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are."<br> <br> Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.<br> <br> In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves - and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.<br> <br> Now eighty-nine years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life - and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. "At some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time," she muses. "After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is." Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other.
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