A Pale View of Hills 

Dulwich Hill branch manager, radio personality, and book selling superstar, Morgan Smith tells us how it is.

June 2019

 - Thursday, May 30, 2019
When recommending Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliant novel The Signature of All Things to sceptical customers, this bookseller would feel the need to say: ‘Forget Eat, Pray, Love, this novel bears no relation to her famous memoir. It’s a stunningly written historical novel with the wonderful Alma Whittaker at its heart—a shy and strange woman who defies the strictures of her time to become a botanist, scientist and adventurer, who at the same time as Charles Darwin, is coming to her own conclusions about evolution. It’s a book loved by everyone who’s read it.’ As will be City of Girls

In her introductory letter to the uncorrected proofs that booksellers and reviewers receive prior to publication, Gilbert makes very clear her intention and purpose with this novel—and that is to give us something that will ‘go down like a champagne cocktail’, a book that will give us temporary relief from our personal troubles as well as those of this (Trumpian) world. In this Gilbert succeeds mightily. But don’t be fooled—we now know her incapable of writing anything mindlessly frothy (forget Eat Pray Love). For Gilbert also tells us she wanted to write about so-called promiscuous women who, unlike so many literary heroines, are not punished for their sexuality and their desires, women who embrace the wild unpredictability that life can offer.

Set in New York in the 1940s, City of Girls centres on the naive Vivian who has dropped out of Vassar and is sent by her parents to stay with her Aunt Peg, the owner of a run-down, wonderfully eccentric vaudeville theatre. Vivian is a whip-hand with a sewing machine and soon becomes wardrobe mistress to the gorgeous, but not always glamorous showgirls who take her under their wing. 

There is a war on in Europe, but the US is yet to commit and in the meantime, New York nightlife is awash with alcohol, drugs, dancing late into the night and sex with whomever one fancies. Vivvy and her beloved showgirl friend Celia throw themselves into this heady world, freely and unquestioningly. 

Things change with the arrival of Edna—a serious actress who has escaped Nazi Europe with her daft but handsome young husband, Arthur. Then Billy, Aunt Peg’s charming ex, a Hollywood screenwriter, turns up and soon he’s writing a musical for Edna. Suddenly they’re not doing vaudeville anymore and the musical becomes a huge hit. The long sequence of the writing of the show, its staging and performance is superbly evoked and totally mesmerising. But of course, in all stories such as this, something must go terribly wrong and terribly wrong does it go.

Gilbert takes Vivvy into a ripe old age when she is relating her life story to a young woman whose identity remains a mystery right up to its reveal at the end. We learn of the time she and Peg are putting on shows for the workers at the Manhattan shipyards. (We can imagine perhaps, the characters out of Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach attending those shows.) After the war, Vivvy becomes a wedding dress couturier. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say she never marries but has many lovers and is happy with her independence, her friends and what has been a life of self-determination and freedom.

Gilbert writes beautifully about the Manhattan of the 40s and beyond. Her wonderfully drawn characters are sympathetic, three-dimensional and very quirky. There’s the marvellous Aunt Peg and her partner in both business and life, Olive. The dashing scoundrel, Billy, and the lovely Celia—who could have been a contender. Edna, the beautiful and stylish actress is, ironically, the one who brings home to the others the reality of war. We feel for these people, forgive them their mistakes and flaws and love them more for it. And isn’t that what we want for ourselves and the people in our lives?

City of Girls is unashamedly a book about women and for women. It will be a joy for this bookseller to place it in the hands of the many customers who beg for a book they can immerse themselves in and forget their worries, if just for a while. As Elizabeth Gilbert exhorts, ‘Life is short and difficult, people. We must take our pleasures where we can find them. Let us not become so cautious that we forget to live.’ See you on D’Hill, Morgan