Chick-lit for older chicks?

Here, relationships and ageing are more engaging than sex or the city. writes Sheila Kumar

Is There Still Sex in the City?Candace BushnellHachette Indiapp 258, Rs 599

With its standout title, Candace Bushnell’s memoir Is There Still Sex In The City? sets up some major expectations, of beautifully made-up, expensively dressed young women dealing with the trials and tribulations of love, sex and everything in between, in NYC. Just as would be expected from the creator of  Sex and the City. However, while the narrative does look at love and relationships, here the women are middle-aged fiftysomethings with much life experiences under their belts -- - financial woes, impending divorces, clinical diagnoses and existential crises. But yes, they face this barrage in feisty style, all the while wearing Havaianas flip-flops.

Bushnell carries the reader through some years of her friends’ and her own life, and the invariable ups and downs they face. Some of the accounts are amusing, some startling and some truly horrifying (a breast implant explosion, anyone?). The book begins with her dog’s death and goes on to talk of her divorce, her financial struggles (a woman, single, self-employed and over 50), her move to the Village, quick catch-ups on her friends’ lives, one friend’s attempt to self-harm, and their views on sex. All this in the first chapter, mind you.

The story then dives into sex for the next few chapters. There are three-thousand-dollar treatments (for the Mona Lisa, the Viagra alternative for women), Tinder, cubbing (older women being catnip for young men) and a number of other such trends and lifestyles that would have one raise an eyebrow, not from prudishness as much as bemusement! The stories are reaching for a light, humourous, even incisive look, but end up largely being overly-descriptive anecdotes which don’t really strike any sort of note with the reader.

For example, one is told a good way to meet men is through bicycles since cycling has apparently spread like a virus. The types of biker boys are then categorised: Family-Man Billionaire- Tech Guy, The Pack Rat, The Actual Bicycle Boy, The Bachelor Boy. While one can see exactly what Bushnell is going for with this, it doesn’t sparkle like it should, and reads like a textbook instead. The author comes across as quite impatient in wanting to tell the anecdote and not too keen to spend much time in character development. So, characters fly in and out without much context other than ‘Kitty’s friend’ or ‘Sassy’s friend’ and rather than chuckling over people’s follies, one ends up feeling sorry for them… and that’s not possibly what the book wants us to do. 

But the book picks up once sex is set aside, and other aspects of her life take centrestage. A close encounter with a hilariously intimidating skin genius, Krystal, who can disappear lines on the face in the blink of an eye, is a passage on beauty and ageing written up in a deft and light manner. There are disquietingly honest accounts of women unravelling at mid-life crisis points, which show a lot of empathy without judging their actions. The most thought-provoking chapter is the one where the author plays ‘Adjacent Mother’ to her ex-boyfriend’s son while the child and father camp in her yard for a vacation. She joins in the fun, chafes at the restrictions a child brings to one’s time and space, enjoys organising activities and generally being caregiver-in-chief, all the while wondering if this is what life might have been like in another universe. It’s a gentle look at a what-if through a charmingly wistful lens.

There is death, loss, grief and acceptance, and there is more depth in these parts than in the early chapters, perhaps because it is coming from a genuine place rather than being simply tongue-in-cheek or perkily satirical. While there are moments of candid exploration of challenges in a middle-aged women’s life and some hard-hitting truths of dating and sex mentioned, the book doesn’t really take the opportunity to look too deep into anything. There’s mention of women being treated as commodities but nothing more, there’s mention of successful relationships but nothing more. The narration is impersonal, detached, even while talking of the most deeply personal experiences one could have. 

Having said that, there is something in the book and the writing which keeps the reader engaged. It’s the sure, measured voice of experience that knows what it wants to say and tells it with confidence and compassion. Apparently the studios think so as well; Is There Still Sex In The City? Is currently being developed into a television series, something that Bushnell is an old hand at, with her earlier books `Sex in the City,’ `Lipstick Jungle’ and ‘The Carrie Diaries’ all becoming television series.

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