On paper, Candace Bushnell and the medieval warlord El Cid don’t have a lot in common. The first made a fortune from persuading a generation of women that brunch with a bunch of broads was something to aspire to. The second scrapped his way through Spain, eventually establishing an independent principality. But the thing film fans recall about the latter is that immediately after his death he was propped up on his noble mount one more time to inspire his weary troops into battle. The story may be apocryphal, but while reading Is There Still Sex in the City? I couldn’t get the image out of my head. It isn’t salubrious to see a fine writer strapped to the same old over-flogged horse and sent out once again as the standard-bearer for sexy sexagenarians.
It’s hardly as though there were no warning signs that the Sex and the City shtick had had its day. In the Guardian in 2015, Peter Preston wrote:
There are moments in journalism when a whole genre hits the buffers. Welcome to ‘It’s a Date’ in the Sunday Times Style mag — the last knockings of the Candace Bushnell Academy of Sexual Disclosure.
Those who have persisted in carrying on creakily have become increasingly embarrassing. One thinks of poor Liz Jones at the Mail, who still writes in the breathless manner of Carrie Bradshaw but now with the added benefits of growing a post-menopausal beard while dating old blokes with prostate problems and erectile dysfunction. Which makes it all the more perplexing that such a good writer as Bushnell has produced this slapdash landfill.
The book begins with her beloved dog being savaged by a murderous fellow mutt in front of her eyes — and goes downhill from there. Her hair falls out. She can’t eat (surely an ambition rather than an ailment of the size 2 SATC crew?) Her husband wants a divorce. She can’t get a new mortgage on the marital flat because she’s single, self-employed and over 50. She moves to the country and writes four books, which her publisher turns down — going so far as to return one manuscript with a black slash across every page. Before long she’s heading back to the bright lights of Manhattan with the question: ‘Is there still sex in the city?’
There is, as it turns out — but it’s a vale of tears rather than a source of fun. Her gynaecologist suggests a $3,000-designer vagina. A producer who takes her out to lunch to talk about a sex project starts crying because his wife has run off with a youngster. She’s told that the best way to meet a man is to ride a bicycle in Central Park but injures herself doing so. She goes on Tinder and meets a bunch of narcissistic dullards who warn her against the dull narcissists she’ll meet on Tinder. She assembles a group of young women to ask them about their experiences on dating sites, which made me think of When Harry Met Sally and what Marie says to her husband after hearing about single Sally’s latest tale of dating woe: ‘Promise me I’ll never have to be out there again!’
These poor kids have had ‘dates’ accompanying men to the dry cleaners, or meeting them in restaurants just so that the men can use the toilets before taking them to Starbucks. In the interests of intergenerational sisterhood, Bushnell decides to keep quiet about what her own dating life was like 30 years ago — a shimmering smorgasbord of helicopter rides, gondolas in Venice and dinners at the Paris Ritz. She discovers that a lot of older women go for younger men. And guess what they’re called? Cougars! You don’t say! There can’t be a cloistered nun under a lifelong vow of silence who doesn’t know what Cougars are by now.
There are flashes of Bushnell’s old sharp style:
A relationship implies a dynamic partnership where people are going to get something done. Companionship implies the opposite; people are going to keep each other company while they mostly just sit there.
But then it slumps into superannuated silliness worthy of Liz Jones herself: ‘Did I deserve to be spoiled by a wonderful man? Of course I did. And so does every other woman.’ Why?
Reading this book, I really wanted to see the four manuscripts that had been rejected. Bushnell had obviously been trying to escape the slinky straitjacket of SATC, but hadn’t been allowed to by the play-it-safe publishing industry. Eventually she meets ‘The Guy’ — who becomes ‘MNB’ (My New Boyfriend). So at least for now she’s found her happy ending. And so, after a fashion, have I — for as this book shambled towards its end, I found myself very happy indeed.