In one of the most anticipated books of the year, Elizabeth Gilbert turns to fiction again and in doing so demonstrates once more her impressive versatility in terms of style, theme and setting.
With the assertion ‘you don’t have to be a “good girl” to be a good person’ made on the cover, Gilbert leaves ambiguity at the door (where we find her characters are often wont to leave their inhibitions). Setting out her intentions towards her readers in a letter at the front, Gilbert takes on hundreds of stories throughout history in which women, acting on or even displaying wanton sensuality is an inevitable precursor to shame, devastation and downfall.
To tackle such a behemoth might have resulted in an unbridled feminist shriek without any real heft but with deftness of touch Gilbert generously imbues her characters with depth and a certain grace alongside their passions.
The 1940’s New York of the novel offers twenty year old Vivian Morris a dramatic alternative to her small-town upbringing when, having dropped out of college, she is packed off to stay with her eccentric Aunt Peg in her tumbledown theatre in midtown Manhattan. Thrown among a cast of bohemians, showgirls and artists (or degenerates depending on your standpoint), Vivvie unequivocally embraces her new home and lifestyle, opening her heart (among other things) with a joyful disregard for consequences.
Consequences will not be pushed aside however. Scandal on a scale which would doubtless have been the denouement of the story told from a different angle in another time, sees Vivian cowed but not broken. There is retreat but only for a time. The phoenix-like Vivian is more vibrant and deeper in spirit for having had to put herself back together and through this Gilbert provides ever deeper engagement between reader and character.
Gilbert’s determination to pull off a story championing the right of women to go after happiness however they see fit is a triumph. Vivian’s charming temerity and effusive belief in herself alongside her sense of duty when times demand might somehow render her familiar to ourselves.
She relates the twists and turns of life to Angela, whose father is something to Vivian though we know not what until Angela herself does at the end of the story. The subtleties and elegant quality of the relationships towards the end of the book are a stark contrast to those of the earlier chapters seeming to demonstrate the joy to be found in passion restrained as well as unbridled.
The cast Gilbert has built around Vivian brings great strength to the overall story while allowing the individuals to shine or sometimes glitter darkly, in their own chaotic, challenging ways. The idea of life imitating art is never far away as life hurls about more drama than the play they are working on. The star of the show is always Vivvie and how wonderfully satisfying it is for us as readers to stay the course with her and how dull life momentarily feels once her story is complete.