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That 'the world is not right' or that 'the world made no sense' is a common complaint from the women in Candace Bushnell's new book. By this they mean that their limited world is failing to deliver what they think it owes them, or that it has somehow, mistakenly, given all the prizes to someone less deserving by which they usually mean less beautiful, or - worse still - more beautiful and less talented. Coupled with this skewed understanding of injustice is an ironic appropriation of Thatcherite sentiment, the repeated assertion that 'Society is dead'.

In this world, however, that simply means that the coke-fuelled movie premieres are getting boring. But the unspoken emphasis on the primacy of the individual at all costs lurks on as the sub-text.

Bushnell's first book, Sex and the City, based on her popular New York Observer column and progenitor of the spectacularly successful television series starring Sarah Jessica Parker, saw its author hailed by some critics as the Jane Austen of the Upper West Side.

But this new book brings her closer to Choderlos de Laclos and the machiavellian sexual ballet of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Those who do, meanwhile, discover that the Grail of marriage merely produces a new set of dissatisfactions and neuroses.

Tellingly, the two authors called on to provide the obligatory jacket quotes here are Helen Fielding and Brett Easton Ellis, but although in Britain Bushnell is as often compared to Fielding as she is to Austen, she belongs firmly in the Easton Ellis school.

Her women are no less grasping and self-obsessed than the brash Wall Street cast of American Psycho, and they do not know how to laugh at themselves; there is no room here for gentle Bridget Jones-like self-deprecation about wobbly thighs. In this hard-nosed, hard-bodied New York society, wobbly thighs can mean the end of the world - or at least of a relationship or a career, which amounts to the same thing.

The four novellas here share a social landscape and a central pool of characters, but are linked more pertinently by the physiognomy of the female protagonists, who occupy different points on the same graph while keeping their thirty-something insecurities in common.

Janey Wilcox, heroine of the first story, 'Nice 'N' Easy', is a model and minor actress who, at 31, is clinging to her flimsy career by the tips of her exquisitely manicured fingernails. Janey's only concrete talent is her ability to slink into the affections of a man with a large summer house in the Hamptons, where she will be invited to spend the season as his mistress.

Janey professes to the kind of jaw-jutting cynicism that is de rigueur among New York women with regard to relationships: 'The secret to getting rich men, which so many women never figured out, was that getting them was easy, as long as you didn't have any illusions about marrying them.

But for all her theoretical savoir-faire, Janey is aware that time is running out. Janey had learned that while most rich men thought women were whores deep down, they didn't actually want you to be one. The second novella, 'Highlights For Adults ', is the sharpest in the book and charts the slide of a literary marriage that appears, on the surface, to be the apotheosis of all right-thinking women's ambitions. Winnie and James Dieke are successful journalists in their late thirties, with an attractive child, established careers and an enviable circle of famous friends.

Why, then, are both so frustrated and angry with the world? The narrative shifts smoothly between a detached, almost mocking perspective 'Here are a few of the things they agree on: They hate anyone who isn't like them Are they scared of them too? Do they hate them? Do they ever have fantasies of pushing their wives down on the bed and ripping off their underpants and giving it to them in the butt? As communication deteriorates, both Winnie and James - convinced that the root of all their problems is the other's failure to understand their needs - first contemplate, then enact, adulterous liaisons.

This story offers Bushnell's most caustic and adroit dissection of the differences between men and women. She doesn't mince words; physically unpleasant elements of sexual experience are dealt with in the same deadpan, knowing tone as emotions and career ambition, but the end note is optimistic, suggesting that a successful marriage is possible, but only if its limitations are accepted, and it is not expected to fulfil every desire.

It is the final, short story that is the most intriguing. An unnamed American journalist, whom the reader is invited, knowingly, to identify as a Bushnell alter-ego, arrives in London. Believing that relationships between the sexes are more relaxed here, she proceeds to reinforce all the textbook transatlantic stereotypes, under the pretext of exploding them. Bushnell deals in generalisations, both in New York and London, and while her caricatured portrait of media London is presumably funnier to Americans who have never been here the love interest is called Rory Saint John Cunningsnot-Bedwards, and she does surmise that all Englishmen 'had sex with their socks on, possessed a microscopic willy, and came in two minutes' , it's not all that far off the mark except, perhaps, that last bit.

In England the narrator lands on what might prove a definitive explanation for the dilemmas of the modern woman, one which flies in the face of feminist principle, but nevertheless contains an essential truth: that beneath the cynicism, women are by nature romantics: 'I wanted the story. I wanted the big, great, inspiring story about an unmarried career woman who goes to London on assignment and meets the man of her dreams and marries him. She gets the big ring and the big house and the adorable children, and she lives happily ever after.

But stories are not reality, no matter how much we might wish them so. And that's not a bad thing. Paradoxically, of course this being a story , as soon as the narrator claims to have given up the romantic dream and affirmed her own worth without a man, she goes ahead and meets one.

Like Wilde or Nancy Mitford, Bushnell has chosen to examine human behaviour in a world that appears at first implausibly one-dimensional. That she can elicit sympathy and indeed empathy for these characters is testament to her skill as a writer, particularly her gift for brilliantly waspish dialogue. You would not want to be any of her characters, but you can't help wincing occasionally in recognition.

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Commentary: The wages of sin of '4 Blondes'

Sexy, funny, and wonderfully lush with gossip and scandal, Four Blondes will keep you turning pages long into the night. I only made it through the first two Four stories about fairly unlikable, unsympathetic women and their lives. We follow their angst until they finally get to their "over the rainbow. Candace Bushnell was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut on December 1,

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'Four Blondes' by Candace Bushnell

By Candace Bushnell. In her new Four Blondes , Bushnell has created four wisecracking and world-weary characters who will be easily recognizable to her fans. The first, Janey Wilcox , is a year-old model faced with declining prospects romantic and professional. Each summer she finds a rich boyfriend with a home in the Hamptons to escape her cramped New York apartment for a few months.


My fair ladies

This question runs through "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell's second book, "4 Blondes," a collection of four novellas that is at first glance a salacious, glamorous portrait of upper-crust New York life, but on reflection a depressing reflection of mainstream American mores. Each of the four novellas centers on a blond who is what some in an earlier age would have called an adventuress, a woman prepared to trade herself and her integrity for money and position. They are only incidentally blonds, by the way; the cutesy novella titles, each alluding to a different blond-making process, wear thin quickly. In "Nice N' Easy," Janey, a former model and "lukewarm celebrity" who's never made it big, shops around each year for a rich guy to provide her with a Hamptons house for the summer: "Janey had no money," Bushnell writes, "but she found that was irrelevant as long as she had rich friends and could get rich men. In "Platinum," "Princess Cecelia," a shallow, drug-addled beauty who's managed to marry an actual prince, descends into paranoia and despair once she finds herself in the fishbowl of everyday life with him. And in the final novella, "Single Process," a single Manhattan sex columnist edging past her peak marriage years sound familiar?

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