Lipstick Jungle

by Candace Bushnell

Hyperion, 353 pp., $24.95

IN LIPSTICK JUNGLE, Candace Bushnell intertwines the stories of a group of women who eat lunch together a lot, talk about relationships, and are more than a little self-obsessed. The Lipstick Jungle, of course, refers to the power, money, glamour, and rivalry drifting in the Manhattan air. Sounds familiar, right? But instead of Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw & Co., we get fortysomethings Wendy, Nico, and Victory, who are numbers 8, 12, and 17 on one newspaper's list of the 50 most powerful women in New York.

These women don't chase Mr. Big; they are Mr. Big. But just because they have top jobs doesn't mean life is perfect. It's lonely at the top. Being a successful woman comes with its own set of difficulties, as Bushnell writes; and, a lot of the time, life for career gals isn't that glamorous at all.

Workaholic Wendy Healy, the president of Parador pictures, has six Oscar nominations this year, but her kids care more about getting a new pony than they do about spending time with mom. To top it off, her husband wants a divorce. When Wendy asks why, he tells her it's because she's pathetic.

Cutthroat Nico O'Neilly, editor in chief of a major glossy, is trying to bump off her boss at the megamedia conglomerate Splatch-Verner (which bears at least a few striking similarities to Condé Nast) in order to grab the coveted CEO job. At the same time, Nico is juggling her marriage, daughter, and an affair with an underwear model.

And then there's the neurotic fashion designer Victory Ford, who, after terrible reviews of her fall collection, might have to sell her brand to a big Parisian company. What's more, the women are sagging, drooping, and protruding in all the wrong places. Everything's not exactly fabulous.

But we do have all the ingredients of standard chick lit: women working in fashion, publishing, or entertainment; good men and bad men; an affair; an unmarried woman of a certain age (does she need a man to be happy?); and plenty of girl power. And, of course, everything works out for them in the end, Hollywood-style--fittingly for a book that reads like a not-altogether-veiled template for a screenplay.

The author takes it a step further, though. While the women ride around in chauffeured town cars wearing Armani suits, Baume & Mercier watches, and Jimmy Choo heels, the men in their lives are totally emasculated. Wendy's husband Shane can't get his act together to find a full-time job. Instead, he stays at home with the kids and their nanny and spends their money on spa trips, Botox, and getting the tips of his hair bleached. When he asks for a divorce, he does it in the most nonconfrontational way possible: "I want a d*vorce," he text-messages her on a cell phone.

Meanwhile, Nico's husband quit his high-paying job once she made it big so he could teach and breed puppies. "Nico loved the fact that because of her Seymour was able to pursue a meaningful yet poorly paying career," Bushnell writes. The girly men are at work, too. When a nasty man at Splatch-Verner cries after Nico fires him, the tears wash away self-tanner on his cheeks.

Victory lashes out at her eccentric but well-meaning boyfriend Lyne (not the manliest name I can think of) so often you wonder if she likes men at all. If the women in Sex and the City were all about finding a man, or at least finding as many as they could, the women in Lipstick Jungle prefer to ignore or humiliate the men they've got.

This all makes for highly colorful, lower-middlebrow fiction--and mostly it's just good clean fun. Plus, some of it is true. Bushnell has said that the women in Lipstick Jungle were inspired by women she knows in Manhattan. And it is an interesting experiment--reversing the traditional male/female power structure to create the novel's twin paradigms of the ambitious, well-educated Ms. Accomplished, and the lazy, underachieving Mr. Mom.

Yet Bushnell's formula doesn't always work. Her female protagonists, despite all their worldly success, still trot out the shibboleth of "sexism" whenever they hit a snag. Talking to her lawyer, Wendy protests the idea that her husband, who considers himself their kids' primary caregiver, will be entitled to alimony and shared custody: "What a great message for the young women of America. If you work hard and become successful, society will punish you one way or another." Well, no; that's not quite the message. It's more like: Be more careful when choosing your husband.

Bushnell's characters can be snobby and annoying, too, as when a whole scene revolves around Victory grudgingly taking the subway for the first time in years and becoming inspired for her next fashion collection by the ordinary women who ride the subway every day. Bushnell's feminist deconstructions of women and corporate America, which aren't worth getting into, are also a bit grating.

That said, Bushnell is by no means a dodgy writer. She's been compared to Edith Wharton and Jane Austen in the way she is able to ravage lovingly a society she knows inside and out. She packs her sentences with gorgeous turns of phrase and canny observations about people in New York. I personally missed the staccato, incomplete prose and second-person point of view that Bushnell made famous in Sex and the City. But, as her books always show us, you can't get everything you want.

Rachel DiCarlo is a Phillips Foundation fellow.

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