Wild girls. Wanting to write about them—their realistic sexual experiences, their journeys of discovering their own pleasure—formed the initial spark for Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, a sprawling saga that helped her navigate a sea of grief.
This subject especially enticed Gilbert because her previous novel, The Signature of All Things, chronicles the exact opposite: a 19th-century botanist who yearns to have sex but never does. “There was just this agony in writing that character,” Gilbert admits, speaking by phone from her home in New York City. So for City of Girls, she was determined to try something different. “Let’s take the corset off and let some people have some pleasure,” she says.
Enjoyment, bliss, satisfaction—these emotions and more form the core of her big-hearted, rollicking new novel about a gaggle of lively New York showgirls. It’s narrated by Vivian Morris, who arrives in New York City in 1940 to live with her Aunt Peg, owner of the dilapidated Lily Playhouse, after being “excused” from Vassar College. (Vivian was ranked 361 in a class of 362, causing her father to remark, “Dear God, what was the other girl doing?”) In press materials for City of Girls, Gilbert compares Vivian’s story to a champagne cocktail, calling it “light and bright, crisp and fun.” She’s proud to write books that “go down easy,” she says. “I feel like it’s a real achievement to write a book that anybody can read. . . . One of the things I’ve said is I make bran muffins, but I frost them to look like cupcakes.”
The characters in City of Girls are “neither destroyed nor saved by sex,” Gilbert says, in contrast to the litany of literary heroines who face ruin or death in the face of sensuality, such as Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Emma Bovary, to name a few. “Most novels about women would have you think it’s one or the other,” Gilbert says. “And that’s just not been my experience, and it’s not the experience of anybody that I know.” She says that Vivian’s comical first sexual encounter is one of her favorite scenes she’s ever written. “I was literally alone in my house laughing my ass off,” Gilbert says. “It felt like such a vindication for all of the sort of horrible virginity-losing scenes in literature. And also all the ridiculously romantic ones.”
Of course, it’s no secret that Gilbert has had more than her own share of adventures, having written her blockbuster post-divorce memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, about eating in Italy, discovering the power of prayer in India and finding love again in Indonesia. However, despite having penned a 2015 article for the New York Times Magazine called “Confessions of a Seduction Addict,” Gilbert wasn’t initially sure she could pull off this wild-girl narrative—that is, until she met a former showgirl named Norma, an “unrepentant hedonist” who was once John Wayne’s girlfriend.
“Part of my research anxiety was, how am I going to get this 95-year-old woman to talk to me about sex? But with Norma it was like, how am I going to get her to talk about anything but sex?” Gilbert says, laughing. “Every generation thinks that they invented sex, but there’s always people who are living on the edge, and Norma was one of them. She had absolutely no shame, remorse or regret about anything she’d ever done in her life. And she was fabulous.”
In addition to interviewing Norma, Gilbert and research partner Margaret Cordi (to whom the book is dedicated) poured several years into exploring a variety of topics. “My system of writing is heavily weighted in terms of hours of research,” Gilbert explains, “so 90 to 95% of the effort is gathering everything I need to feel competent enough to create a convincing world. It’s truly like learning a new language, and it takes a lot of years to get fluent.”
And then suddenly—still during the research phase, before the writing even began—everything came to a heart-stopping halt during an 18-month period of deep, dark sorrow. In 2016 Gilbert left Jose Nunes, the husband she had met in Bali, to partner with her best friend, Rayya Elias, who had just been diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer. Gilbert tossed everything aside to care for her and couldn’t even imagine writing. “It just wasn’t the time,” she says.
After Elias died in January 2018, Gilbert retreated to her country house to begin working on her manuscript, even though at first she could barely remember her characters’ names. “I didn’t leave for a couple months,” she says. “It was just me and the dog and the book, and it was really healing. Every once in a while I would think, is this good for grieving? Like, should I be around people? But in fact I was around people. I was around all the people in the book.”
Gilbert describes this isolation as exactly what she needed, “something so consuming that I would look up, and hours had passed, and I hadn’t remembered that Rayya had died,” she says. “I think that creativity is kind of the opposite of depression, the opposite of despair. And I really want to offer the book as a gift to everybody in these dark times. I hope it does for everyone what it did for me, which was cheer me up.”
But Gilbert soon faced another significant challenge: She didn’t know how the book would end. A short introduction is set in 2010, when 89-year-old Vivian receives a letter from the daughter of a man she once knew, asking Vivian to explain their relationship. The rest of the book, beginning in 1940, is Vivian’s “How I Met Your Father” response. “I love to be in control and feel like I know everything,” Gilbert acknowledges, “but you have to leave a little bit of a window open for that which will surprise you.” Luckily, the author soon lost herself in her narrator’s voice. “I would get up every morning and say to Vivian, ‘Let’s just tell everybody what happened.’ And I was able to kind of just become her.”
Gilbert took great pains to make sure Vivian’s voice rings true. “She cannot speak as though she’s got a degree in women’s studies from Bryn Mawr,” Gilbert says. “I needed to make sure that I didn’t put too much of my modern feminism into the book, that it had to be realistic to its time and to those girls.” Young Vivian adores the unbridled freedom she finds in New York with Aunt Peg, “the first freethinker [she’d] ever met,” whose theater company is “a living animation of glamour and grit and mayhem and fun.”
Gilbert herself grew up with freethinking parents, living on a small Christmas tree farm in Connecticut that her mom and dad still run. “My parents are really unconventional,” she says, “and my dad’s a real iconoclast. I feel very lucky to have been raised by a genuine eccentric. Everybody thinks their dad is weird, but my dad is really fucking weird. His disdain for anybody telling him what to do was so huge that I think I just inherited that.”
Tossing conventions to the wind, Gilbert’s own life often seems to swirl about her with plot twists like those found in her novels. In March she announced on Instagram that she’s in a new relationship with photographer Simon MacArthur, an old friend of both hers and Elias’.
“My way of living involves flinging my heart into the world and seeing what it sticks to,” she says. “So there’s always a lot of love in my life.”
Portrait of Elizabeth Gilbert by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders