“City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Well, after a considerable stretch of time during which I thoroughly enjoyed every book I read, here comes the one that left me with mixed feelings. First of all, I haven’t read “Eat, Pray, Love” by the author, and I haven’t done it mainly because, to be honest, I couldn’t get through the movie. The main character’s actions didn’t make any sense to me. The description of “City of Girls” intrigued me, though.

In a letter to her old friend’s daughter Angela, ninety-five-year-old Vivian Morris tells the story of her life. I am always charmed if a book has an autobiographical feel. And I loved the humour.

The setting is 1940s New York – for almost half of the book, at least – and it’s absolutely mermerising! I almost felt the beat of the city. I heard its music. The lights of Times Square were so real that it seemed they were twinkling and dancing right in front of my eyes.

The Lily Playhouse, a second-rate theatre, that hasn’t really seen better days in terms of the quality of its performance is a book character in its own right. The life behind the scenes is more bustling than on stage. And it adds to the overall state of never-ending drama and fervor when a British theatre diva comes to the crumbling Lily Playhouse. Her arrival brings a fresh wave of creativity and glamour to the shabby but charming place. And now, it depends on every person involved in a production of a new play if the Playhouse will rise above its cheap vaudeville status, visited only by tired and not really enthusiastic about arts local clientele.

And then, there is the cause of my mixed feelings: the main character, Vivian.

I do like controversial characters. It doesn’t bother me when royalty is vain and egocentric. It doesn’t annoy me when book characters don’t make the choices in their lives that I would make. It doesn’t surprise me when serial killers are portrayed, well, like serial killers, rather than innocent lambs that have been spanked when they were little and that experience made them bitter and prone to violence, especially toward middle-aged women in grey skirts or pink tracksuits – whatever it was that their evil mothers had been wearing while spanking their kid who had done nothing wrong. I find it interesting to see the situations through different people’s eyes. But Vivian Morris did annoy me.

To me, she seemed just like Edna – that British theatre star – described her. Won’t leave any spoilers here. I’ll try to find my own words. No matter how the author – through Vivian’s lips – tried to explain her character to readers, at least for me, it hasn’t worked. The only steady impression I got from reading about her life philosophy is that everyone who made different choices in life than she did is unhappy and bored.

Vivian seemed so one-dimensional that it was impossible to feel sorry for her when she went through troubles, as well as feel joy when something in her life went well.

Reading “City of Girls” I felt a familiar dissatisfaction that I couldn’t, at first, place. And then I made the connection. I was feeling as uneasy as when I was reading “The MaddAddam Trilogy”. While I liked Margaret Atwood’s books, it was confusing that all of the characters were severely unlucky and unhappy. And with “City of Girls”, the fact that everyone Vivian meets outside the glamour circle looks like a sad caricature of a person, spoilt some of the otherwise exciting reading experience.

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