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Monday 19 August 2019

From the depths of grief, Gilbert conjures up a city of joy

Fiction: City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert

Bloomsbury Publishing, €16.49

Elizabeth Gilbert's new book is a celebration of women
Elizabeth Gilbert's new book is a celebration of women
City of Girls

Liadan Hynes

In her new novel, Elizabeth Gilbert set out to create a work that was light and frothy, that went down like a glass of Champagne. Given that she wrote it in the aftermath of the death of her partner Rayya Elias, and that she achieved her intent, is an impressive testament to her redoubtable skills as a writer.

Elizabeth Gilbert is, of course, the writer of Eat, Pray, Love, a book which has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, and been made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. It is a memoir based on Gilbert's own life. Tracing the aftermath of the breakdown of her marriage, she embarked upon a journey to heal herself, ending in Bali where she met the man who went on to be her second husband.

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Several years ago Gilbert separated from this man, and soon afterwards announced she was in a relationship with Rayya Elias, a woman who had long been her best friend.

Elias had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis, and Gilbert put her work on City of Girls - at the research rather than writing stage at that point - on hold, in order to nurse her partner.

Her publishers allowed her one deadline extension during Rayya's illness, which meant that after her partner passed away, Gilbert was faced with the prospect of having to finish the novel in the next few months.

City of Girls is the story of 19-year-old Vivian Morris, a privileged Wasp who after disappointing her family's expectations (go to a good school, get married), is banished to live with her dissolute aunt who runs a theatre in New York.

As punishments go, it was ill-thought-out.

Vivian is instantly immersed in a world of showgirls, nightclubs and dashing men. She parties, she drinks, she has sex.

Gilbert started work on this book before the #MeToo movement kicked off but its themes are in keeping with current sentiments. She has described this as a story about women who are not broken by their bad choices, pointing to the history of women in literature who are destroyed by ill-advised moves.

In this book, the heroine is promiscuous, and there are consequences to her actions, but she survives.

Although utterly dissimilar in style and content, it is reminiscent of Caitlin Moran's last book, How to Be Famous, where the author intentionally created a female heroine who is not made to suffer too harshly.

It's refreshing stuff.

Gilbert has also pointed out that the book more than passes the Bechdel test (a test which looks at whether two women talk about something other than a man in a work of fiction).

City of Girls is halfway through before there is a conversation between two male characters in which no woman is involved. This is a story about women. About female friendships, and lives in which these relationships, rather than romantic ones, are paramount.

Elizabeth Gilbert often refers to magic around creativity. This is not a work of magic realism, but the style, and the world Gilbert has created; lush, vivid, epic but simultaneously beautifully detailed, and full of unlimited possibility, are reminiscent of that genre.

Although written in a time of deepest grief, this book is celebration of women, and a joy to read.

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