When the show Sex and the City first exploded on to our television screens, the main delight was that it was so, well, rude. Not just a group of glossy Friends hanging around an implausibly large apartment, this was a world of brittle, buffed New Yorkers united in their search for the perfect Manolo Blahniks and the perfect man. Perfection is, of course, a commodity much more easily found in shoes.
Over dry martinis, these sassy, sexy women discussed the highs and (more frequent) lows of the dating game and the quirks of their conquests. It was the shattering of sexual taboos - the peculiarities, the dysfunctions, the excruciatingly embarrassing detail - that really blew our minds. Men giggled nervously, but women guffawed.
The series was based on Candace Bushnell's column-turned-book, which was just as acerbic as its TV adaptation. In pithy, epigrammatic prose, it portrayed the bars and bedrooms of Manhattan, which provide the backdrop for "peculiarly cruel mating rituals, as complicated and sophisticated as those in an Edith Wharton novel".
Her first novel, 4 Blondes, continued to anatomise this territory, where shopping and fucking are interchangeable and plastic surgery enhances the pleasure of both. If this sounds like fun, then stand corrected. Most of all, it's about the sheer hard graft of being a New York socialite. Not necessarily the effort expended on the Brilliant Career (if you're poor enough to need one), but the effort of matching Prada coat and Gucci shoes, of being allotted the right table at the right restaurant and invitations to the right parties. It is, for the most part, a dark, pitiless, world, lit up only by Bushnell's razor-sharp wit.
Her new novel, Trading Up, is almost twice the length of its predecessors. Its central character, Janey Wilcox, is the lingerie model on the make who featured in the first section of 4 Blondes, a woman determined to exploit her sparkling eyes, and her silicone implants, to maximum financial advantage.
After years of exchanging sex ("with short, paunchy, bald men with hair in their ears and fungus on their toes") for summers in the Hamptons and access to serious cash, she finds a man who's sufficiently rich, and physically inoffensive, to become her husband - the first stage in a drive to conquer New York. Money, sex and power she has; but now she wants a serious movie career, too.
Bushnell's depiction of Machiavellian machinations in this study of self-delusion is hugely entertaining, and littered with the astute observations that have become the writer's trademark. These have provoked comparisons with Jane Austen, and there's still the odd arch, Austenian moment. The general mood, however, is more expansive. It's hard to escape the feeling that Bushnell is trying to "trade up" from Regency elegance to Victorian panorama.
This is not a good idea. At times, it seems that she has swapped the stiletto for the hobnail boot, Bushnell brevity for an accumulation of detail that verges on the banal. Trading Up is not a snappy margarita at the Bowery Bar but a multi-course banquet at the Gramercy Park Tavern. Sometimes - unlike her characters - this all feels a little too rich.
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