As a girls’ college alumnus and a former girls’ hostelite, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert held special meaning for me. It made me appreciate those forsaken days anew, when we were raw, unworldly, unformed and thought we knew it all. When we believed that we could do anything we want and have it all.
Oh well. Nothing like a few failed job applications to bring to life earth-shattering realities our parents tried to shelter us from. Now here we are, reeling and trying hard not to become too cynical and sleep-deprived while navigating our existential crises. Much like the heroine of this book.
The ‘City of Girls’ book follows Vivian Morris, a spoilt, directionless, pretty, bratty young thing and her mistakes in New York. She lives with her aunt and some staff in a run-down ratty theatre that barely survives. She befriends a bunch of showgirls and dancers and has the time of her life with these girls. Vivian grows to scorn the bounds of holy matrimony, in a time period when women have very little else to do.
Luckily for Vivian, the 60s hippy movement makes her and her ilk not so unusual. She ends up missing nothing because her old age is surrounded by a bevy of female friends who lift up and support each other (most of them being a little too unusual for society’s liking) and she gets to be an amazing aunt to her best friend’s child. A fond dream expressed by many girl power instagram accounts.
I related so hard and got nostalgic about my Mount Carmel days. Those of you who heard me complain endlessly about the absence of boys back then, must be laughing and rolling on the floor. But, yes guys, I did finally learn that having XY chromosome-ers around won’t magically fix my self-esteem problems.
One of the most wonderfully written parts of the book is when Vivian heroine-worships a famous stage actress, called Edna. She takes meticulous fashion lesson notes from this woman who is a sartorial magnate and this forever changes Vivian’s tastes. It reminded me of how much cool fashion I used to get to watch every lunch break, as the girls of MCC strutted along the corridor to the gate.
Mount Carmel is one of the girls’ colleges more reputed for its fashionistas than the quality of education. The girls have close access to Commercial Street and Brigade Road and turn into expert bargain hunters by the time they graduate, with a talent for digging out hidden gems in the surplus shops.
Even the burka-clad girls who never took them off would be wonderfully outfitted underneath. Were there no unstylish girls? Of course not, and I was definitely one of the girls who needed friends to help me dress passably. But I think that we finally had that sartorial knowledge settle into our brains in a few years post-graduating.
Moving aside from the shallower reasons for liking City of Girl, I would be amiss in not appreciating the strong female friends circle Vivian develops. They help her tide over middle life and even after she loses a romance in her twilight years.
Indian society certainly wouldn’t encourage such aspirations though some men and women are increasingly declaring such a life as a goal. A small but loud group of people are proclaiming these days that missing out on matrimony may be well worth it with a network of meaningful non-spousal connections. And they are not necessarily the childfree crowd (which does very much exist in India).
It’s too early for me to know how long these girlfriends from my MCC days will accompany my life story. Back then, I felt like we would all remain in touch for life. But, my small gang of girls are still with me, texting and calling every so often.
This author is famous for exploring relationships in depth. Elizabeth Gilbert’s other famous work is Eat, Pray, Love; a rather polarizing book though it got made into a movie. Julia Roberts played the semi-autobiographical female lead who found herself. I wouldn’t be surprised if City of Girl got on the big screen as well since Vivian is a more compelling heroine. Vivian also ends up finding herself over the 40 odd years covered.
I now think that if you want to find yourself, its a never ending journey. Maybe we should move on from the idea there is a one ‘you’ to discover. The girls I admired at MCC have continued to evolve interestingly and I am excited to meet the many women they will become as the decades roll by. I might also reread City of Girls in the meantime.