Monday, 15 November 2010

For the love of Candace

So what's a middle aged man like me doing reading a book by Candace Bushnell? I suggested we put One Fifth Avenue on the reading list of our book group a year ago. It got vetoed by the - then - only female member of the group who said she despised Bushnell so much she wouldn't consider ever reading another of her books again. I think she'd read 4 Blondes and found it utterly revolting. Well, whatever. Carmen is such a fan of Bushnell's, and this book in particular, that despite the BG veto I've been meaning to read it ever since. Last week I finally managed it.
And it is fabulous. I wish I'd read it when it first came out and campaigned for it then. I could have stood in bookshops telling people it was nothing like the TV shows and insisting that if they love Trollope or perhaps even Tolstoy, then they had to read Candace.
Bushnell has since written The Carrie Diaries, a teen targetted blockbuster based on her Sex and the City character which has sold mega units thanks to its TV tie in. Carmen read it this summer and found it a slight, throwaway disappointment compared to One Fifth, which he kept telling me to read. When I finally did, I found it a wonderfully ambitious, clever and extremely satisfying novel.
One Fifth Avenue revolves around people living in the same building... It's a real address - we stayed quite near it when we were in NY in 2009 - which looks as amazing as it is described. The building is an art deco microcosm of all the aspirational angst, the class structure, the fuckyounofuckyou bullshit that makes New York such a stunning example of modern day capitalism. The self same materialist bullshit that dominates London, Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, Tokyo and you-name-it. It's New York at its most raw, most human, most universal.
I've been told that when she is on form Bushnell excels at social commentary. Especially high society social commentary, but not exclusively so. Like Trollope in a cocktail dress, she flits from penthouse to basement with ease, scrutinising the collapse of the American dream in an Atlanta suburb as easily as she does the red carpet goings on of the glitterati. Her women are almost always vicious - the TV shows are a Disneyfication of her original ideas - though this book is salvaged by having one genuinely nice person in Schiffer Diamond (Bushnell plays against type and has an actress who is both generous and centred, well ... who'd have guessed?) and a nearly nice person in the figure of the 80-something gossip writer Enid Merle, a JJ Honeysucker in a hairnet if ever there was one.
Bushnell's fans love the glam aspect of her books. The designer clothes, the swish restaurants and the like. But while these are celebrated in the TV spin offs - SATC, Lipstick Jungle - her books have always treated them in a far colder, harsher manner That's what I've gathered from Carmen, anyway. This one is certainly that. It's not fluffy. It's well dressed, perhaps, but certainly not a bimbo.
Bushnell writes a brilliant portrait of grasping ambitious desperate young 20-somethings, frozen out of the good jobs by the 'boomers'. She is fantastic when it comes to writing about sex - both as joyous romance and as cynical trade. She is adept at capturing men's inadequacies - vain 40-something writers in particular. And she packs a lot into a page, regularly shifting POV in a fluid, clearly written style. One that a lot of young literary bucks could learn from. But then they won't because they'd never consider reading a Bushnell novel.
Which is a shame. Because they should

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