City of Girls

Riverhead. Jun. 2019. 480p. ISBN 9781594634734. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780698408326. F
After flunking out of Vassar College, 19-year-old Vivian Morris is sent by her wealthy parents to New York City to live with her unconventional aunt Peg, who owns a crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. It’s the summer of 1940, and for a girl “so freshly hatched, there was practically yolk” in her hair, Vivian’s new home is a bewitching mix of “glamour and grit and mayhem and fun.” Vivian eagerly embraces her new life, quickly losing her virginity, embarking on wild escapades with showgirl Celia, and making costumes for the playhouse. But when a careless personal mistake results in a professional scandal, Vivian returns home, chastened, in a short-lived attempt to meet her parents’ (and society’s) expectations. The first half of Gilbert’s (The Signature of All Things) historical novel is a rollicking coming-of-age delight, vividly capturing the spirit of the era. But the melancholy second half feels flat, owing to the awkward narrative structure that has ninetysomething Vivian reflecting on her life in a letter to the daughter of the man she loves.
VERDICT Tart-voiced Vivian and her adventures in 20th-century Manhattan will please readers who enjoyed Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. [See Prepub Alert, 12/3/18.]
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