A joyous and unusual life

From teenager to nonagenarian, Elizabeth Gilbert's protagonist lives a life that is rich and memorable, writes Michele Magwood

02 June 2019 - 00:00 By Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times: 02/06/2019

City of Girls ****
Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury
R250

When Elizabeth Gilbert's partner Rayya Elias died of cancer last year she dealt with her grief in the only way she knew how: by writing. Her new novel City of Girls is not about death and loss, though, in fact it is quite the opposite. It is a great, swirling belter of a story, infectiously life-affirming and enormously wise.

It begins, enticingly, with a letter. Vivian Morris is now 95 and living in New York. She receives a letter from a woman named Angela who asks: "Given that my mother has passed away, I wonder if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?"

And with that Vivian leaps far back into the past.

"In the summer of 1940, when I was 19 years old and an idiot, my parents sent me to live with my Aunt Peg, who owned a theater company in New York City."

Vivian had been kicked out of Vassar and her remote and snobbish parents didn't know what to do with her, so they put her on a train to NYC.

Peg's theatre, The Lily, was a decrepit old building where they put on B-grade vaudevillian productions, but to Vivian it was a wonderland. She was dazzled by the statuesque showgirls, one of whom shared her room in Peg's apartment, and the pair became a team. "Drunk, pinwheel-eyed, briny-blooded, brainless, weightless - Celia and I spun through New York City that summer on currents of pure electricity."

They were greedy for men and greedy for glamour, carousing from club to club after the shows, their days defined by highballs and hangovers. Vivian earned her keep by making costumes. She was a talented and inventive seamstress, turning old scraps into glorious clothes, a talent that would stand her in excellent stead her whole life.

But one night it all spins out of control and Vivian is caught up in a sexual scandal. Her fall from grace is sudden and brutal and before she can catch her giddy breath she is dumped back on her parents' doorstep. Shamed, her spirit broken, Vivian moves through the days like a ghost.

Gradually she will put herself together and move back to New York, but now she will build a life on her own terms.

"At some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is," she says.

In the years ahead there are many more lessons to learn. Lessons of honour and redemption, of commitment and forgiveness. When we are young, Vivian says, we believe that time will heal all wounds. But as we get older we learn that some things can never be fixed.

"After a certain age, we are all walking around this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries. Our hearts grow sore and misshapen around all this pain - yet somehow, still, we carry on."

Vivian carries on, making a rich and unusual life studded with joy and sensuality. We eventually learn just what she was to Angela's father - and what he was to her - and it is not what you think. It is one of the most memorable relationships dreamed up by a novelist in a long time.

Gilbert deserves to be known for much more than her memoir Eat, Pray, Love. As she demonstrated in her last novel The Signature of All Things, she is an entrancing storyteller.

In her introduction to this book she writes that during the pain and trauma of her partner's death "it felt more important for me to tell stories of joy and abandon, passion and recklessness. Life is short and difficult, people. We must take our pleasures wherever we can find them. Let us not become so cautious that we forget to live." @michelemagwood