As I was finishing Ulysses I though that I must read a “light” book next. I have to have my next book lined up to avoid the nightmare of not having a book to read: it’s hard for me to think of much that could be worse. I looked down my list of “Want to reads” on Goodreads and hit on City of Girls. Somebody whose taste I respect must have recommended it, and it seemed just right, although I knew nothing about either the book or the author.
I was “just right.” It’s a romp of a book—a joyous celebration of women, New York City, theatre, relationships, sewing, and sex. (I’ve read plenty of books where food and cooking are a central feature, but this is the first where sewing and dressmaking are celebrated.) But it’s also a moral book, full of insights about life and particularly about men, women, and the relationships between them.
This is an odd thing to praise about a book, but one of the best bits is the acknowledgements. I feel duty bound to at least scan acknowledgements when I finish a book, but usually they re mostly empty gush. Gilbert’s acknowledgements are different: they give you a well-written insight into the enormous amount of research, much of it interviewing people, she did to write the book. Many writers, I fear, would have been crushed by the research, producing a ponderous, heavy-footed book, but I never noticed the research as I skipped through the book. It was the acknowledgments that showed me how much heavy research had been needed to write a light book.
Once I’d finished the book I looked up Elizabeth Gilbert and realised how much of herself and her life is in the book. I learnt too that she is the author of Eat, Pray, Love and has been voted one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time and named on Oprah’s SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders. I knew the words eat, pray, love, and I knew that it had been a film, but I knew nothing else about it. Now I wonder if I should read it. I learnt too that she believes, like Hemingway, “that writers find stories not in a seminar room but by investigating the world.” That’s how she wrote this book, and she clearly had lots of fun doing so. We feel the fun when we read the book.
Here are the quotes I took from the book, which illustrate its depth.
“There are subtleties, my dear. You will discover as you get older that there’s practically nothing but subtleties.
It took me many years to become an honest person, and I know why: because the truth is often terrifying. Once you introduce truth into a room, the room may never be the same again.
You must learn in life to take things more lightly, my dear. The world is always changing. Learn how to allow for it. Someone makes a promise, and then they break it. A play gets good notices, and then it folds. A marriage looks strong, and then they divorce. For a while there’s no war, and then there’s another war. If you get too upset about it all, you become a stupid, unhappy person—and where’s the good in that?
When we are young, Angela, we may fall victim to the misconception that time will heal all wounds and that eventually everything will shake itself out. But as we get older, we learn this sad truth: some things can never be fixed. Some mistakes can never be put right—not by the passage of time, and not by our most fervent wishes, either. In my experience, this is the hardest lesson of them all. After a certain age, we are all walking around this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries. Our hearts grow sore and misshapen around all this pain—yet somehow, still, we carry on.
Nothing will uproot your life more violently than true love—at least as far as I’ve always witnessed.
After a certain age, Angela, time just drizzles down upon your head like rain in the month of March: you’re always surprised at how much of it can accumulate, and how fast.
Eventually, all of us will be called upon to do the thing that cannot be done. That is the painful field,
I’m aware that I’m relaying your own history to you at this point, and it makes me self-conscious. You surely know what happened better than anyone—or maybe you don’t.
Once I got the hang of it, I found that eating alone by the window in a quiet restaurant is one of life’s greatest secret pleasures.
During the war, the British army engineers always used to say: ‘We can do it, whether it can be done or not.’ That’s how the theater works, too, Vivian. Just like a war!
It was on the rooftop of our little bridal boutique that I learned this truth: when women are gathered together with no men around, they don’t have to be anything in particular; they can just be.
Is that the dirty trick? Is this how they get mothers to ruin their lives for their children? By tricking them into loving them so much.
She shuddered in dramatic horror, as though learning how to type were something akin to busting up rocks in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Billy Buell is that rare man who claims to love women and actually does.”
“He’s a newspaperman. He’s got no money. He’s got nothing but power.”
Dr. Kellogg was a member of the Metropolitan Club. In his free time, he enjoyed bird-watching, collecting stamps, and having sex with showgirls.
He and I had been talking about jazz (which is to say that he had been talking about jazz, and I had been listening to him talk about jazz, because that is how you talk to a man about jazz)
Men and women
Flirtation is a series of silent questions that one person asks another person with their eyes. And the answer to those questions is always the same word: Maybe.
When had I ever tried to be in charge of Anthony? (Aside from constantly urging him to move to a new apartment, that is. And wanting him to dress and speak differently. And encouraging him to stop using so much slang. And asking him to style his hair in a more conservative manner. And trying to convince him to stop chewing gum all the time. And arguing with him whenever I saw him flirting with a dancer. But apart from that? Why, I gave the boy nothing but freedom.)
Arthur Watson had completely gotten away with his misdeeds and lies. Celia had been banished by Peg, and I had been banished by Edna—but Arthur had been allowed to carry on with his lovely life and his lovely wife, as though nothing had ever happened.
When men became too dewy-eyed with me, I merely explained to them that they were not in love with me, but with the sexual act itself, and they would usually calm down.
I can’t be certain that Frank and I would have shared the same depth of love and tenderness for each other, had sex ever been part of our story. Sex is so often a cheat—a shortcut of intimacy. A way to skip over knowing somebody’s heart by knowing, instead, their mere body.
that bottomless well of a man—that walking confessional booth who could absorb whatever you told him without judgment or alarm. Nobody else could be that beautiful dark soul, who always seemed to straddle the worlds of life and death.
And I hate to disappoint you, but it’s best you learn now: most marriages are neither heavenly nor hellish, but vaguely purgatorial.
New York City
He was New York City’s very distillation—a glittering composite of sophistication and mystery.
“The trick of comedy,” said Billy, “is not to perform it in a comic manner. Don’t try to be funny, and you’ll be funny. Just do that effortless thing you Brits do, of throwing away half the lines as though you can scarcely be bothered to care, and it’ll be brilliant. Comedy is always best when it’s thrown away.”
Dying from emphysema
My Aunt Peg died in 1969, from emphysema. She smoked cigarettes right up until the end. It was a hard death. Emphysema is a brutal way to die. Nobody can fully remain themselves when they are in such pain and discomfort, but Peg tried her best to stay Peg—optimistic, uncomplaining, enthusiastic. But slowly, she lost the ability to breathe. It’s a horrible thing to watch someone struggling for air. It’s like witnessing a slow drowning. By the end, sorrowful though it was, we were glad that she could go in peace. We couldn’t bear to see her suffer any longer.