“I always hated hearing old people yammering on like this when I was young. And I do want to assure you: I’m aware that many things were not better in the 1940s. Underarm deodorants and air-conditioning were woefully inadequate, for instance, so everybody stank like crazy, especially in the summer, and also we had Hitler.”
It’s 1940 and Gilbert’s narrator, Vivian, has just been kicked out of Vassar College for a terrible freshman performance (she was ranked 361 out of 362, just ahead of the girl who contracted polio). Not knowing what to do with her, Vivian’s parents send her off to New York to live with her Aunty Peg who owns a crumbling theater, off-off-off Broadway, called the Lily Theater. Vivian has no interest in acting or writing but is quite talented with a sewing machine, so Peg makes her the theater’s costume designer and what was intended to be just one regular summer in her life becomes the defining summer that drives the rest of her life. Now at 95, our narrator is looking back on her life and mapping out the effect of that time in New York on the rest of her life.
“I was long and tall, that’s all there was to it. And if it sounds like I’m about to tell you the story of an ugly duckling who goes to the city and finds out that she’s pretty, after all-don’t worry, that is not that story. I was always pretty, Angela. What’s more, I always knew it.”
Gilbert said – “My goal was to write a book that would go down like a champagne cocktail- light and bright, crisp and fun.” and she definitely achieved that. This book is light even though it’s set in the 40’s with the war looming, during the war and after the war. It is fun and easy to read. This book started very well, I loved the main character, her voice was strong and funny. Everybody in this book had so much life and energy, it was a parade of very interesting people in the theater world all with a hint of glamour. The amount of detail Gilbert put in her descriptions were very impressive. The way she described the dresses, the society, the theaters, the effects of war on people, made everything so tangible and easy to imagine. This book had these burst of humor that really shined and Vivian’s retelling of how she lost her virginity was absolutely hilarious.
“The world ain’t straight. You grow up thinking things are a certain way. You think there are rules. You think there’s a way that things have to be. You try to live straight. But the world doesn’t care about your rules, or what you believe. The world ain’t straight, Vivian. Never will be. Our rules, they don’t mean a thing. The world just happens to you sometimes, is what I think. And people just gotta keep moving through it, best they can.”
Ultimately, this book was way too long. This book is almost 500 pages but should have been edited down to 300 pages. This book is essentially a letter Vivian writes to her friend’s daughter describing how they met and their effects on each other’s lives but honestly, that entire part could have been cut out. I didn’t think this line of the story moved the story forward in anyway. I was bored and kept wondering what this had to do with anything. This book shines when it is all about Vivian, when we are hearing about her promiscuity, the war, the professional scandal that sends her out of New York for the first time, and an inner look into the workings of the theater world in 1940 New York. I don’t think light books that go down like champagne should be almost 500 pages long.
“The secret to falling in love so fast, of course, is not to know the person at all. You just need to identify one exciting feature about them, and then you hurl your heart at that one feature, with full force, trusting that this will be enough of a foundation for lasting devotion.”
Even though I thought this book was longer than it should have been, I quite enjoyed it and definitely recommend it. It’s essentially a beach read and perfect for summer. I gave this 3 stars on my Goodreads. Have you read this book? Are you going to? Let me know in the comments!
P. S – If you enjoy this book, you should check out Amor Towles’ “Rules of Civility”.