So far, it’s hard to predict what Elizabeth Gilbert will write from one novel to the next. I read Eat, Pray, Love reluctantly, because it was so popular and I resisted reading a memoir by someone so young. But I loved it for its style and humor. The Signature of All Things was an enthralling 19th century story about the life of an unusual woman.
In City of Girls, Gilbert re-creates 20th century Manhattan, beginning in 1940. Vivian Morris is a heedless Vassar dropout with no idea what she wants to do and no inclination to do anything. Her status-conscious parents finally ship her off to her Aunt Peg in New York. Peg is the owner of a crumbling old theater in Hell’s Kitchen that puts on brainless entertainment for working class clientele.
Vivian begins a life of drunken nights running around town with the theater’s chorus girls and sleeping with just about anyone and days making costumes for the shows. For Vivian’s talent is sewing.
In the four-story building where the theater is located live Aunt Peg and her partner Olive as well as a motley crew of chorus girls, musicians, and others from the shows. Vivian is delighted to be given the apartment of Aunt Peg’s husband, the debonair Billy Buell, who hasn’t lived there in years. But things change after Peg offers a home to the famous British actress, Edna Parker Watson, whose home was destroyed in the Blitz. Peg decides to stage a good production for Edna, and Billy arrives to help write it.
The show is a success, but shortly thereafter, Vivian takes a fall because of her own foolishness. She ends up returning to her parents’ home in disgrace.
So far, the book was of a piece, even if I didn’t find Vivian a particularly interesting or sympathetic character. But that’s just the first half of the book. During the second half, when a wiser Vivian returns to New York to help out her aunt during the war and proceeding for the next 30 years, I began to wonder what the heck the book was about. It just seems to meander around a lot before coming to an admittedly poignant point.
The conceit employed by the novel is that the entire long novel is a letter to a woman answering her long-ago question of how Vivian knew her father. I think this first-person narrative is a weakness, because I can’t imagine someone writing some of this stuff to anyone, let alone a near stranger. Further, the second half of the novel seems like a different, less purposeful book.
It sounds like I disliked this book. I didn’t, I just feel it has problems, and I never warmed to Vivian.
The Signature of All Things