There is a lot of bad behavior in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, “City of Girls,” a lively period novel about a tribe of women — theater folk! — set primarily during World War II. They have sex with multiple strangers and each other; they drink to excess for weeks on end; and they make bone-headed decisions for which they suffer not too terribly. (Crabs, hangovers and snubs are among the sternest punishments.)
They follow their appetites, and, refreshingly, nobody dies or gets exiled for too long or has to wear a scarlet letter.
It is a story line that has long been dear to Ms. Gilbert, an avatar of among other things female pleasure, since the success of her 2006 blockbuster memoir, “Eat Pray Love,” and the wan movie adaptation, starring Julia Roberts, that followed it in 2010.
Recounting her adventures in Italy, Indonesia and Bali, the book turned Ms. Gilbert, a well-regarded magazine writer and author who had made her bones as one of the boys, sometimes literally (she once spent a week living as a man for GQ, sporting a tiny goatee and packing a condom filled with birdseed), into a goddess of chick lit: a self-help guru anointed by Oprah and TED. The movie made her a wealthy woman.
It was the sort of success that can hobble a literary reputation. “Wickedly well-written,” James Gorman of The New York Times decreed in his review of “The Last American Man,” Ms. Gilbert’s 2002 biography of a charismatic buckskin-wearing, woods-dwelling utopian named Eustace Conway, one of her many chronicles of ur-maleness, and a finalist for the National Book Award.
But for years after “Eat Pray Love” was published, critics gnashed their teeth over her privilege and silky prose, and questioned the depths of her suffering and the extent of her faith, all the while calculating the exact value of her very good fortune. She faced this with typical moxie and humor.
The worst of it, the author said, was being blamed for ruining Bali.
On a recent bright morning, Ms. Gilbert strode into D’Amico Coffee on Court Street in Brooklyn, open since 1948, like a regular, greeting the proprietor, Joan D’Amico, whose shock of purple hair matched her purple tunic, like an old friend.
Ms Gilbert turns 50 in July, but she looked a decade or so younger; she wore her short platinum hair tucked behind her ears, a nubbly gray scarf, a cadet blue velvet frock coat and black pants tucked into black leather boots, combat style.
She had chosen to meet here, instead of the apartment near Gramercy Park where she has lived for the last few years. In her new novel, her ninth book and fourth work of fiction, this part of Carroll Gardens is where one of her characters grew up, and she had spent a day or two in the coffee shop taking notes when she was researching the book, hence the warmth of Ms. D’Amico’s welcome.
Still, it seemed a curiously impersonal choice for a woman who has made a career out of sharing the details — the quotidian, the intimate, the truly harrowing — of her personal life, in memoirs, essays and speaking tours, and all manner of social media.
Ms. Gilbert’s Facebook account, which has more than 1.6 million followers, is billboard, bulletin board and chat room for the author and her audience, whom she addresses as “dear ones” and responds to with diligence. These are relationships she takes seriously, she said.
In 2016, when Ms. Gilbert and her second husband, José Nunes (the Brazilian importer known as Felipe in “Eat Pray Love”), separated, she reported their split on Facebook. When her best friend, Rayya Elias, a Syrian-American former punk rocker, former heroin addict, filmmaker and indie hairstylist, learned she had late-stage pancreatic and liver cancer, Ms. Gilbert delivered the news on Facebook, too, along with a declaration that her love for her old friend had blossomed into a romance.
After Ms. Elias died, on Jan. 4, 2018, Ms. Gilbert’s readers mourned with her, following the announcement of her death on Instagram (746,000 followers) and Twitter (243,000 followers). And when Ms. Gilbert fell in love again, with an English photographer named Simon MacArthur, an old friend of Ms. Elias’s, she again announced this on social media.
“If you see me walking around with a tall handsome man on my arm, don’t be buggin’. Just know that your girl is happy, and following her heart,” she wrote. “But also this: I will always share anything personal about my life, if it could help someone else feel more normal about their life.”
Like many of her posts, it was covered as news by People, Oprah and “Today,” among other old-fashioned media outlets.
“Putting it out there is just smoothing my own path and not being coy,” Ms. Gilbert said now. “It makes my life easier to be open because I will be with him a lot in public. I’d much rather say, ‘This is who this is,’ rather than have people speculate.”
But Ms. Gilbert has lately begun guarding the privacy of her physical domicile. “On this stuff I just follow my instinct and I guess that I’ve decided that my home is where I get to live,” she said. She modeled the apartment of her protagonist on her own one-bedroom. “And also the way she feels about it is how I feel: ‘Oh my God, this is my place, my little piece of New York City.’”
Vivian Morris, the central character of “City of Girls,” is a 19-year-old Vassar dropout and sensualist who is sent by her disapproving parents to live with her Aunt Peg in Manhattan. Peg, who has a weakness for the bottle and for her estranged husband, a playboy actor and playwright, runs a down-on-its luck theater that doubles as a boardinghouse for showgirls and others involved in its productions, all of which is overseen by a stern British aide-de-camp named Olive who turns out to be more than just Peg’s secretary.
A storied British actress named Edna Parker Watson and her doltish husband flee London when the Blitz destroys their house. They, too, are taken in by Peg, and the fulcrum of the book is the musical that’s created as a vehicle for Edna, which ends up saving the playhouse from financial ruin, though Vivian transgresses in a spectacular fashion.
Ms. Gilbert renders the play, also titled “City of Girls,” like a pro, complete with musical numbers, a rousing opening night prayer and reviews. (Ms. Gilbert read Alexander Wolcott, the 1930s-era New Yorker writer, among other period work, to get the tone right.)
The protagonist’s sex scenes are pretty good too, from the afternoon of Vivian’s deflowering, a hilarious scheduled encounter with a middle-age married veterinarian, to a lusty first-crush affair with the play’s leading man. Sex is mostly sport to Vivian, who pursues it cheerfully through late middle age, while staying resolutely single.
“Female desire has a mind of its own,” Ms. Gilbert said. “Female desire is more about a woman going on the hunt for what she wants.” She said she wanted to write a book that rendered it accurately, as something “muscular, messy, proactive, complex. And I wanted to write a book about a woman who was willing to take risks with her safety in order to be sexual. I didn’t want to pretend that there is no consequence to promiscuity — Vivian certainly faces consequences. But she’s not destroyed by her desire, nor is she ruined by its consequences.”
Nor was Ms. Gilbert. “Ruination has not been my experience as a promiscuous girl,” she said, “and it’s not been the experience of a lot of people I know. You can actually survive your terrible judgment.”
She has certainly endured greater trials, having nursed Ms. Elias from her cancer diagnosis until her death.
“She was epic, absolutely epic,” Ms. Gilbert said proudly. “An exploding contrivance that could not be contained.”
Ms. Elias grew up in a traditional Syrian Christian immigrant family that had settled in Detroit.
“She was using drugs by the time she was 12, slipping out of the house to go see Led Zeppelin when was 13 and cutting punks’ hair with hedge clippers,” Ms. Gilbert said. “She was traumatized and caused trauma. She gave as good as she got. She ended up being a speedball junkie on the Lower East Side, she was at Rikers, at Bellevue, in God knows how many rehabs.
“Then she just walked away from it and became the most extraordinary human being. She carried with her all of the wisdom and mercy of those years and never judged anybody no matter what they were doing because she knew intimately what it was like to be a good person trapped in horrible behavior. We reckoned before her death that she’d already gone through 17 or 18 lives.”
It was a stark contrast to Ms. Gilbert’s upbringing on a Christmas tree farm in Litchfield, Conn., where she and her older sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, a young adult book author, were required from childhood to pitch in.
The family grew their own food, raised bees, chickens and goats, and heated their falling down house with a wood stove. The Gilbert girls’ chores were numerous, and grew with each year. They stacked wood, milked goats, fertilized the trees. Birthdays came with not just a gift, but a new responsibility.
Ms. Gilbert’s reputation in the family, she said, was that she was the lazy one. She daydreamed a lot, which meant she often drifted away before the chores were done. “It was a constant battle with me and my mom,” she said. “She was relentless, though. She really wanted us to grow up to be competent and responsible, so she didn’t let me get away with any slacking. Despite my best efforts.”
Ms. Gilbert and Ms. Elias collided in Ms. Elias’s post-addict days, when she was cutting hair out of her apartment on Avenue C. “I was her client, then her friend and then her patron,” Ms. Gilbert said.
Ms. Elias was also an author, of “Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, From the Middle East to the Lower East Side” (2014). She wrote it in a church in Alexandria Township, N.J., that Ms. Gilbert bought with her movie money and has long lent to friends who needed a place to work. In 2007, Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Nunes had settled in nearby Frenchtown, selling Indonesian Buddhas and other treasures out of an old warehouse there, a business they shut down in 2015.
Ms. Gilbert said that in the aftermath of Ms. Elias’s diagnosis, “I realized that I loved her, and had to be with her. That was the trigger.”
The next conversation Ms. Gilbert had was with her husband. “Everyone around us knew,” she said. “The reactions of all our friends ranged from, ‘Duh, I thought you guys had been sleeping together for years’ to, ‘How long is it going to take for you to figure this out?’”
They had 18 months together, mostly in an East Village rental. Palliative morphine was particularly challenging for an former drug addict.
“It was very complicated,” Ms. Gilbert said. “The struggle was more painful to her than the cancer. It was brutal. She died sober, outliving her prognosis by about a year. She was never a rule follower. I’m so proud of her, and so proud of what we did. We loved each other, and there is tremendous pride in that. I thought the world after Rayya would look like some post-apocalyptic landscape and it hasn’t, and the reason it hasn’t is because we did that, because we loved each other.”
‘Can’t Stop,’ Won’t Stop
Reviewing “The Signature of All Things,” Ms. Gilbert’s 2013 novel about the devices and desires of a female botanist in the 19th century, Barbara Kingsolver wrote that “the narrative stretches but the center holds,” which is a pretty good description of Ms. Gilbert’s life to date.
The author’s multiple coups des foudres may be as noteworthy as her written output. So too her energy for the most glancing relationships, like those with the thousands of readers who have waited hours for her to sign a book when she is on tour.
Emboldened by her own conversational, confessional style, they have brought her their heartaches — their divorces and depressions and love affairs gone awry — and she has listened, comfortingly, to every one.
But no more, Ms. Gilbert said. “I always ended up getting sick and exhausted,” she said. “Because by the end you felt like you’d been to six funerals and a wedding. I think the book-signing line is stressful for everyone. There’s people standing there worried about getting home to the babysitter, they are 90th in line, they’re nervous about what they’ll say, it’s hard on the bookstore employees. There’s tension for everyone and I thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
But she still shows up for speaking gigs, giving her all — karaoke, dancing! — to interlocutors like Rob Bell, the author, spiritual teacher and former megachurch pastor. They met in 2014, on “Oprah’s Life You Want Weekend,” a two-day self-help extravaganza and arena tour led by Ms Winfrey.
In January, at the Largo comedy club in Los Angeles, Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Bell chicken-danced and mugged to “Can’t Stop,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, for what seemed like an eternity, a move designed to last, as Ms. Gilbert put it, “long past when it’s appropriate and so much that it becomes awkward.”
Such unabashed behavior, Mr. Bell suggested recently, is what draws people in. “So much around us is styled and Instagrammed within an inch of its life,” he wrote in an email, “but for she and I this is where the life, the juice, the mojo, theszoosh — whatever that word is that Liz uses — is. I’ve often felt like my job was to grow in public. I sense that in Liz as well. To search for the water and try to describe where we found it.”
The epigraph of “Eat Pray Love” is “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth!” — an exhortation to Ms. Gilbert delivered by Sheryl Louise Moller, an actress and old friend, when Ms. Gilbert, pre-“Eat,” had embarked on the affair that would end her first marriage.
“She wrote this book that she thought maybe 60 people would read,” Ms. Moller said. “It was like a diary, a purge. Then I watched her become this person that Oprah would have on her show. Liz is an old-school storyteller: When she tells a story about you, you sit slack-jawed at the epic-ness of your own tale. I watched her become this person who could get up on stage and tell people what they needed to hear. And connect with those readers. I watched her become the patron saint of any author who’s been hugely successful and had to write the next thing. She knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by fame. She is absolutely committed to the act of creation, which is why she is able to start again, over and over again.”
At 13 years and counting, how tiresome is it for Ms. Gilbert to keep answering questions about “Eat Pray Love”?
“I could do it all day, babe,” she said. “And often I do.”
Penelope Green is a Style reporter, covering home, garden and the built environment. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Manhattan. @greenpnyt • Facebook
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