By Nidhi Chopra
I became quite the armchair traveller with Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls (Bloomsbury, Rs 550). It felt like I’d found a friend within its pages, even though it is set in a place I’ve never visited and from a time in history I’ve known only through books and movies. Gilbert held me completely captive with the protagonist Vivian Morris’ story, convincing me it was one that most of us have traversed before in some form or the other. So, here are four reasons on why you should definitely pick this book up for your next read!
It reminds us that we need time to evolve.
Vivian in her 20s is not a likable person. She’s a bored, rich girl who’s isn’t shy to jump right into living with all the confidence of youth backing her actions and decisions. She applies herself fully to living recklessly while making irreversible mistakes along the way. We observe an entitled irresponsible girl who’s taught by the most effective teacher of all – Life.
Slowly but steadily we witness her transformation into a strong, independent-minded woman. “Oh, the deliciously blinding yearnings of the young – which inevitably take us right to the edges of cliffs, or trap us in cul-de-sacs of our design,” she remarks. As the book progresses, we understand her and begin to forgive her – akin to how we forgive our own digressions. At one point in her 30s, a mentor, Olive explains what it means to be an adult.
“To become an adult, one must step into the field of honour. You will need to be vigilant in your principles. Sacrifices will be demanded. If you make mistakes, you must account for them. If you find it too challenging, you may always exit, and then you can remain a child. But if you wish to be a person of character, I’m afraid this is the only way.”
It made me wish I had an ‘Olive’ in my life to teach me when I was stumbling around in my 20s and 30s seeking, falling, hurting, getting up and dusting off repeatedly! Vivian echoes my thoughts:
“These days, I am the sort of tough-skinned old battle-ax who would rather stand dry-eyed and undefended in the most hostile underbrush of truth than degrade herself and everyone else by collapsing into a swamp of manipulative tears.”
And with that, I was in love with Vivian!
A lesson on how much we take for granted
We get a peek into what it would’ve been like for women in the 1940s. It is a tentative, almost apologetic brand of feminism that we are unfamiliar with today. Vivian thinks it’s “odd” that she has come to love her independence. She completely “understands” why no one man would want to marry her. She calls herself an “aberration – almost a deviant” for not being interested in marriage.
In one passage, she mentions how winning the war had made men endlessly boastful. “I often found the conversations tiring. I became quite good at cutting short all the chitchat by being sexually direct,” she says.
She calls her way of dressing “bizarre” because she preferred to wear trousers. The years immediately after the war, she says “femininity came back with a vengeance”. She disdainfully dismisses the decadent dresses, “with the nipped waists and the voluminous skirts, and the upwardly striving breasts, and the soft shoulder line”.
Vivian calls that time in history as being ‘held hostage by Dior’ and I couldn’t help but wonder, aren’t we still? The only thing that’s changed is the fact that we’ve added more trends to our lives – from clothes, shoes, handbags to 10-year Instagram challenges and Face Apps that proclaim our superior genetics to one and sundry. It seems like we truly have redefined vanity!
The futility of war hits you.
This part of the story really gripped me. It made me wonder what it was like for people in war-torn countries today. It made me sigh at the futility of it. It brought within me a newfound respect for people who survive conflict – both soldiers and civilians.
“The war was a vast, starving colossus that needed everything from us – not just our time and labour, but also our cooking oil, our rubber, our metals, our paper, our coal.”
There are many such treasures within the pages of City of Girls that will keep you hooked as a reader. Smiling in places, laughing in others. “I promise that I will try my best not to go on and on about how much better everything was back in my day. I’m aware that many things were not. Underarm deodorants and air-conditioning were woefully inadequate, and also we had Hitler,” Vivian says.
Gilbert deals with Vivian’s story with gentleness and love, demanding of the reader the same understanding. Here’s my favourite quote: “Live your life as you wish, my peach, but don’t let it bitch up the bloody show.” So, here’s hoping that you will, too, find a friend within its pages just as I did.
Nidhi Chopra is a Singapore-based digital entrepreneur, an in-the-closet writer, mother of two, wife of one, friend to many.