Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

One of the shitty things about being anxious all the time because of *gestures vaguely* is that I’ve been having trouble deeply focusing on anything. If my twitter timeline is any indication, I’m not alone in this.

In the past, I’ve found the best way to kickstart my brain back into action is by reading the right book. What makes it the right book? That’s not something I can ever really predict. Essentially, the right book is one that manages to totally capture my attention. A romance novel is usually a good bet, but that wasn’t working this time. I tried a couple of non-fiction books, a few old favorites, and even some graphic novels but nothing was working.

Lucky for me, my hold on Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls finally came up! Thanks to the magic of and I was able to borrow a digital copy from my local library. It turned out to be exactly what I needed to start feeling like myself again.

Note: I’ve tried to avoid big spoilers, but read on at your own risk.

City of Girls follows Vivian, a young woman who moves to New York City to live with her aunt in the dilapidated Lilly Theater in 1940. A sense of youthful excitement fills the first few chapters of the book as she experiences being young and unfettered in the city for the first time. The atmosphere of the city seems to match Vivian herself, joyful in an indiscriminate, immature, and unsophisticated way.

At the people and relationships at the Lilly will probably feel vaguely familiar to anyone who’s worked in theater. Gilbert manages to capture how relationships and personalities tend to become slightly exaggerated in that environment. People bond closely for a short time, then quickly drift apart.

Those with some experience can see these relationships for what they are, real but also ephemeral. Vivian, however, is experiencing it all for the first time. She manages to be accepted by everyone quickly, however, once they learn she knows how to sew.

Sewing for Vivian isn’t a chore that was forced on her, but rather a highly valued skill. To be honest, I don’t think I would have liked Vivian very much as a character if she hadn’t been so passionate about sewing. In the first pages, she talks about taking her sewing machine with her on the train to the city:

Also joining me was a sturdy crate containing my sewing machine – a heavy and unwieldy beat, awkward to transport. But it was my demented, beautiful soul-twin, without which I could not live.

As a seamstress, those few lines struck me hard. I remember being twenty years old and moving to Chicago, thinking I was so mature when I was really just a child. That connection made it hard for me to dislike her even when I wanted to shake her.

One of my favorite parts of the way this book is written is that the big climactic moment, where Vivian acts incredibly stupidly, takes place relatively early in the novel. While she is very much not the only one to blame for what happens, she is the one who we witness getting one of the most painful dressing downs I’ve ever read. From this low, the author is able to spend a lot of time allowing the main character to rebuild herself and become a real adult.

This long come down works structurally because of a framing mechanism the author uses. At the very start of the book, Vivian receives a letter from someone that kicks things off. The story ends when we catch up to her writing the response. While necessary, this framing mechanism is only rarely mentioned, which I appreciated because I found it took me out of the story a bit. However, having it gave a structure that allowed for the long winding down of the story to feel purposeful.

Beautifully written and absorbing, I would highly recommend City of Girls. You can find City of Girls at most bookstores, including my new favorite

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