City of Girls

Let’s get the unpopular opinion out of the way first: I dislike Elizabeth Gilbert. Yes, the Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame (a book I never finished because meditation bores me, as does the pursuit of “enlightenment.”). Sure, I agree that Gilbert is a skilled writer and an interesting world traveler, but something about her writing never fails to annoy and disappoint me. I think it’s the combination of naïveté and pessimism that does me in – either of those things alone can be a buzz kill, but combined they are intolerable. Somewhere in the subtext of Gilbert’s narrative thread (or in her advice to artists in Big Magic, the book that annoyed me most) is the idea that one must resign oneself with less – so much less! – than full-blast happiness, and I begrudge her this stinginess or acceptance or whatever it is. It irks me! Her characters, it seems, live long lives, but only a small portion of these lives is truly interesting. Meh! So yes, I’m setting out to rip apart the book I was praising just yesterday, City of Girls. But see, to reference some wisdom from the book itself, people set out reading a novel (or seeing a show) wishing to love it. The second act can most definitely change their minds. And City of Girls‘ second act disappoints big time. The book sets out to be about the theater world, the glitz and glamour of New York City, and about dresses, glorious dresses with all the complexities they entail: seams and fabric and fit and so much more! I was surprised Gilbert wanted to embrace topics of such levity, but I should have anticipated that she wouldn’t do it for long. The book starts out on a delightfully frivolous note – yet with brilliant insights into human nature – but it ends up being about war, honor, and trauma. Yikes! Not that those are not topics worthy of exploration, they just happen to not be among the subjects I enjoy reading about for pleasure.

Something else that bugged me, and I find it in a lot of historical fiction: The characters end up being visionaries of sorts, so ahead of their times in terms of their acceptance of themselves and of others. I’m not sure that’s realistic, plus it’s a bit preachy, creating a world dominated by the author’s values. Not sure it’s possible to stray away from this entirely, but it got me to thinking about the sort of book I wish to write. It even got me to open my laptop and do a little bit of writing. So, I suppose Gilbert’s novel was useful. It was even enjoyable until the second act. Still, I can only advise people to read it and form their own opinions. Perhaps they won’t find it as depressing as I do.

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