Is There Still Sex in the City? Not So Much, Apparently
That you-gotta-laugh-or-you-cry place is where Candace Bushnell, with her usual sparkling candor, begins “Is There Still Sex in the City?
Sometimes it can be fun to wonder what became of our fictional heroines. Did Elizabeth Bennet move into Pemberley and discover that her prejudice and her pride were well founded when Mr. Darcy turned out to be a stuffed shirt with anger-management issues? And what of Carrie Bradshaw? After she bagged her Mr. Big, did she list her $40,000 shoe collection on eBay, move to the suburbs, have a bunch of kids and grow old gracefully? Or did Carrie find herself in her 50s child-free, single again and wondering how to get back in the game, only to have her gynecologist recommend a Mona Lisa laser treatment because “your vagina is not flexible enough”?
Ugh. Such are the humiliations awaiting the female in middle age. That you-gotta-laugh-or-you-cry place is where Candace Bushnell, with her usual sparkling candor, begins “Is There Still Sex in the City?”
More than 20 years ago, Bushnell created a cultural phenomenon when she described Manhattan mating rituals in a weekly newspaper column. It was as if Truman Capote and Margaret Mead had made a beautiful blond baby who combined anthropology with higher gossip. Part reportage, part memoir, those columns begat a book, “Sex and the City,” which begat a TV series of the same name. By focusing on the friendship of four 30-somethings, it lent warmth and humanity to a world that could be chilling in its loveless calculation. “Sex and the City” actually posed a serious sociological question: What happens when women have sex like men? Except we were too busy laughing at Bushnell’s artful acronyms to notice.
Fans of “Sex and the City” and Bushnell’s subsequent books may be baffled by this one. The title suggests a sequel, but there are no updated adventures of Carrie and the gang (pity; who wouldn’t love to see what a little testosterone gel might do to a menopausal Samantha’s libido?). She introduces another group of gal pals: Sassy, Kitty, Queenie, Tilda Tia and Marilyn. They all move to the Village (clearly the Hamptons), where they find themselves in Sniper’s Alley — that scary time of life when people you love start getting sick and dying. Bushnell, whose mother has recently died, claims her mom’s breast cancer was caused by hormone replacement pills, “a standard prescription for women going through menopause.” That is almost her sole reference to the topic. A book about women in their 50s that doesn’t discuss menopause is like Carrie Bradshaw on a bar stool without a Cosmopolitan.
After her divorce, Bushnell runs smack into the last taboo — ageism. Helpfully providing the perfect metaphor, the bank tells her their algorithm won’t let them give a mortgage to a self-employed single woman over 50. “Because I had no applicable boxes, I was no longer a demographic. Which meant, in the world of algorithms, I didn’t exist.” The “middle-aged drumbeat of terror,” the fear of invisibility and that “it’s all downhill from here” are poignantly observed. This is a very different voice from that in “Sex and the City,” both chaste (Bushnell claims she hasn’t had sex for several years) and chastened.
Our narrator recovers her witty high spirits when she returns to Manhattan after the editor Tina Brown calls her with a story idea, suggesting “that I throw myself back into the dating world and write about what it was like dating over 50.” Bushnell, resistant at first, finally dives in. She is appalled by Tinder, but even more appalled when she gets hooked: “It was like being in Vegas.” Although Carrie’s gang suffered from chronic romantic detachment, at least they still met men in real life. “Dating 30 years ago was actually fun,” Bushnell explains to one poor girl who admits that, if a guy from Tinder takes her to the A.T.M., she regards it as an “outing.”
It’s not easy to recreate the magic formula of an epoch-defining best seller. Bushnell gives it her best shot, sprinkling her trademark acronyms and nicknames like comedy confetti. There are “SAPs” (senior age players), one of whom might become “M.N.B” (my new boyfriend), and “Super Middles” (people dedicated to the exhausting business of looking younger than they did when they were young). She is funny on “cubbing” (dating men in their 20s and trying to master their horrible slang) and on “MAM” (middle-aged madness, which Bushnell claims is the female version of the male midlife crisis). Any woman in that age bracket, however, will recognize the thunderous mood-swings as symptoms of that state the author is so weirdly reluctant to mention.
The middle of the book is bulked out with a chapter in which Candace is hustled into spending $4,000 on skin care products at an Upper East Side salon (a story that hardly lends credibility to her pleading financial worries). In another, an ex-boyfriend brings his young son to stay and she wonders whether she missed out by not being a mother. Both feel like magazine features and add to a generally unsatisfactory, meandering feel.
At the end, there is tragedy for one of the women in the Village group. But we have hardly learned their names, let alone their characters, so the emotional impact is dulled. Bushnell, who is better at hilarious than heartfelt, has found happiness with M.N.B. As for the answer to the book’s title, there isn’t a whole lot of sex in the city, but there is companionship, which would have appalled Carrie Bradshaw — but what did she and her shoe collection know? At 60, older, wiser and more fearful, Bushnell says, “While nice didn’t matter so much in one’s 20s and 30s, now it is about the best quality a person can have. Nice is safety from the storm in a world that, as it turns out, is not so very nice after all.”