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Titles similar to City of Girls
Girls Do Want to Have Fun—and Equality
After Vivian Morris, far more interested in clothes than scholarship, flunks out of Vassar in 1940, her indifferent, well-to-do, conservative parents ship her off to Aunt Peg in Manhattan, who owns and runs a ragtag theater in Midtown. Pretty, naive, and ardently open to suggestion, Vivian finds herself in a chaotic, cash-poor, improvisational, hard-drinking household overseen by stubbornly pragmatic Olive, upon whom Peg relies in ways Vivian cannot imagine. Celia, a ravishing showgirl who loves nothing more than a wild night on the town, promptly initiates Vivian into her life of revelry and casual sex. Their friendship, escapades, and quandaries make for an effervescent pre-WWII variation on Sex in the City (with a nod toward Auntie Mame).
Gilbert’s previous novel, The Signature of Things (2013), portrayed a nineteenth-century woman scientist who refused to be stymied by the sexism of her time. Here Gilbert writes against the traditional literary grain in which women are harshly punished for enjoying sexual freedom, though she adeptly camouflages her serious intent, which also embraces matters of race, class, and gay rights in a whirl of satin, lace, champagne bubbles, and smoke. And what keenly delicious fun Gilbert has bringing to life the struggling Lily Playhouse and its modest productions aimed at entertaining working-class audiences with larky song-and-dance numbers and leggy lovelies. Vivian’s sewing skills grant her full entry into this enthusiastic if makeshift enterprise, especially when the chic and gifted British actor Edna Parker Watson and her handsome young husband arrive. Their London home has been bombed to “matchsticks,” and they’re in desperate need of sanctuary and work. Peg takes them in and makes them the stars of the theater’s next production, City of Girls, a play Gilbert revels in creating, from song lyrics and costumes to opening-night reviews. Its improbable success changes everything for everyone involved, and not necessarily for the better.
After barely surviving a scorching tabloid scandal—among the intriguing real-life characters Gilbert portrays is the infamous gossip columnist Walter Winchell—followed by wartime demands, Vivian comes into her own as a talented fashion entrepreneur. We learn about her many adventures in retrospect as Vivian, an octogenarian in 2010, vividly recounts her life of choice and independence with sly wit, piquant regrets, and hard-won wisdom. Vivian’s confident candor about women’s sexuality, including her own preference for sex free of emotional entanglements, is tonic and affirming; the surprising turn she takes to embrace love is deeply moving.
Reading City of Girls is pure bliss, thanks to its spirited characters, crackling dialogue, rollicking yet affecting story lines, genuinely erotic scenes, and sexual intelligence, suspense, and incisive truths. Gilbert’s beguiling blend of comedy and gravitas brings to mind other smart, funny, nimble, and vital novels about early- or mid-twentieth-century women swimming against the tide. Most take place in New York, and some also depict the theater or other creative endeavors as crucibles for social struggles: Fay Weldon’s Worst Fears (1996); Bandbox by Thomas Mallon (2004); Marge Piercy’s Sex Wars (2005); The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (2014); Searching for Grace Kelly by Michael Callahan (2015); Careers for Women by Joanna Scott (2017); Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017); Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017); The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp (2018); Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt (2019); and Park Avenue Summer by Renée Rosen (2019).
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