Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sucks in the City

Last night, I just finished Candace Bushnell's One Fifth Avenue. I'd had such a hard time getting it at the library that I put it on my Christmas list. I sort of regret that now, as I'm stuck with it.

Candace Bushnell reminds me a great deal of Edith Wharton, and that resemblance was only cemented for me by this book. Both write about high society and women in New York City. And both are intellectual enough that one need never feel ashamed to bring their books to work, but trashy enough to be a good escape (although Bushnell's sex scenes are much more graphic than Wharton's).

The conceit of One Fifth Avenue is a simple, classic one. It's about neighbors. What better way to talk about a broad spectrum of society? They are all ensconced within the title building, a character in its own right. You have somewhat of a clash of the old and the new in this book. Gossip columnist Enid Merle lives there. She's about 80. Her nephew, screenwriter Phillip Oakland, also has an apartment in the building, as does his old flame, actress Schiffer Diamond, who has recently changed coasts back to New York. At the beginning of the book, society grande dame Louise Houghton lives there, too, but dies almost immediately.

That's the old guard. The upstarts consist of hedge-fund manager Paul Rice and his wife Annalise, who buy Louise Houghton's fabulous penthouse apartment; Lola Fabrikant, who is Phillip Oakland's 22-year-old girlfriend; and the Gooches, Mindy and James.

The new guard is the most interesting, and depressing. Face it, don't you guys know already how Schiffer and Phillip turn out? But Mindy, it's hard to know where her character will lead. Mindy is probably the most depressing image of a modern woman I've ever seen. She's every cliche that the anti-feminist movement warned us about come to life in a miserable, aging bag. Mindy is married, but not happily, to an underachieving writer. She has a job that most people would consider quite decent, but she finds it unfulfilling in every way. She has a son, but doesn't seem to spend much time with him. But hey, they own an apartment in One Fifth, right? And she's the president of the condo board! Doesn't that count for something?

Not really. Not to Mindy. As Mindy is all too acutely aware, they have the worst apartment in the building, cobbled together during a previous recession out of luggage rooms. It's dark and cramped. And while she's president of the condo board, it seems that she got the position more out of sheer pushiness than because she was liked and respected. Mindy confesses that she doesn't even have sex with her husband (apparently it hurts too much).

Then there's Lola, the anti-Mindy, if you will. Lola, as I mentioned, is 22 years old, and a real striver. She comes from a wealthy family in Atlanta. Her mother's name is Beetelle, which is perfect. She kind of is a beetle, or some other predatory insect. Her father's name is Cem, which is also perfect. Cem? How do you pronounce that anyway? Like "chem class"? "Sem?" Is that supposed to be short for something? Who knows and who cares, he supplies the money and that's that. Lola's mother pushes her relentlessly, not academically, but in the realms of fashion, beauty and popularity. Lola's been denied nothing and told she was special all her life. She has a nose job, a boob job, and designer clothers. Her hobbies include Facebook, YouTube and "The Hills." Now she's been turned loose on New York to get a man.

Lola reminded me a great deal of Lily in The House of Mirth. Both sort of played a trick on the reader. When you first meet Lola -- and Lily -- they are arrogant, entitled, vapid and silly, and you long for them to get theirs. But when their inevitable downfall comes, it's so tragic, so vicious, and so awful that you wind up rooting for them --but never fully escaping that voice in your head reminding you that you'd lusted for this from the beginning.

The characters in this book are really brilliantly done, and for having so many separate plots, the book has a brisk momentum and never bogs down. But the thing about it is that it's not fun. No one in this book is really happy. Everyone's looking over their shoulder. When Phillip and Lola have sex, Phillip feels slightly ashamed, while Lola's mostly "closing her eyes and thinking of England", or her future status, rather. The Rices have an absolutely obscene amount of money, but it doesn't buy them any kind of happiness, either. I've already covered the misery of the Gooches.

I always thought part of the fun of reading a book like this was the fantasy aspect. Imagining, for a moment, what it must be like to be able to go shopping for new purses every day, to get your hair done someplace where it costs $400, to be featured regularly in "Women's Wear Daily." But apparently, it's no fun at all. It's just anxiety-inducing. And it made me grateful to know that I'm free to enjoy the salon I visit every couple of months without worrying who else goes there, that I appreciate my $35 Kohl's purse even if it didn't come from one of the 'right' stores, and that if I'm ever fortunate enough to get an expensive piece of jewelry as a gift from my boyfriend, I can be secure in knowing that he chose it himself and his motives were pure. And seriously, that's more than anyone over at One Fifth Avenue can say for themselves.