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City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

This wonderful book had been sitting on my TBR pile for far too long. My only regret in finally picking it up and devouring it, is that now it’s read, I can no longer be delighted and astonished by the marvellous world of young, unambitious but adventurous Vivian Morris in New York in the 1940s.

When nineteen-year-old Vivian is sent to join her avant-garde, Aunt Peg, in the city that never sleeps, she becomes seamstress to the cast of the Lily Playhouse, assembling ad hoc costumes for their cheap and cheerful shows. Finally, Vivian feels she’s found her place in the world, drinking, partying and befriending the glamorous and utterly gorgeous showgirl, Celia.

But when the grand British actress, Edna Watson, and her himbo husband arrive from Britain, essentially, refugees from the war, they bring in their wake a certain magic that enchants all those in their orbit. Keen to take advantage of the star’s presence, the Lily Playhouse seriously invests in Edna and puts on a grand play, The City of Girls. With a hit on their hands, everything changes, especially for Vivian who finds herself cast in a role she was never born to play.

Told as a letter written by an ageing Vivian looking back on her life, to someone called “Angela”, the voice of this novel is utterly compelling. Vivid, able to call out her own flaws, own her mistakes and be generous towards others, as Vivian’s story unfolds, it’s not only the tale of one woman’s journey towards independence and self-awareness, but a world’s awakening after the horrors of war and the impact it has had on individuals, families, and society. In some ways, Vivian and certainly her Aunt Peg, are women out of time, but in others, they represent what women throughout the ages have longed for – respect, an authentic voice and autonomy. Not to be judged by a set of arbitrary and ever-shifting criteria that’s both reductive and self-defeating. In so many ways, this story about women from decades past speaks to us in the here and now as well.

A beautiful, lyrical story that lingers in the heart and head long after the last page is turned.  

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