What She Saw . . .
BY LUCINDA ROSENFELD
Random House; 288 pages; $23.95
BY CANDACE BUSHNELL
Atlantic Monthly Press; 246 pages; $24
It's not that Phoebe Fine, the hip, knowing, occasionally anorexic-bulimic, perpetually black-clad East Villager heroine of Lucinda Rosenfeld's new novel isn't getting laid: She is. The problem is that she's getting laid too much. By the end of this winning if somewhat thin coming-of-age story, she's had so much sex that it's become no more meaningful than "pissing." Ditto for the four slightly older women who wearily inhabit Candace Bushnell's archly in-the-know follow-up to Sex and the City: For each, coitus is so obviously nothing more than a tool to acquire things (temporary boyfriends with the "right" Hamptons addresses, careers, titled hubbies) that the act has similarly devolved from the ecstatic to the excretory. According to someone in Four Blondes, sex is "the most overrated activity in the universe," and I must say that after reading these two books, I'm inclined to agree. But strikingly, both -- despite their protagonists' aggressive, ostensibly liberated attitudes toward sex -- are, ultimately, deeply romantic.
Rosenfeld's is by far the better book. The narrative trajectory it plots is by now so familiar that it's virtually formulaic (suburban stultification, hip college, date rape, anorexia-bulimia, mindless temping); what redeems it is the author's terrific eye for the telling absurdity and a blissfully deadpan sense of humor. The novel traces Phoebe's erotic evolution from a fifth-grade crush on Roger "Stinky" Mancuso through a culminating romance with Bo "the Boarding School Brando" Pierce. As you might guess from those two names alone, Phoebe -- a Jewish girl from the Jersey suburbs who ends up not sleeping a whole lot in the city that doesn't either -- is often tempted by the kinds of men she couldn't necessarily bring home to her hopelessly square classical-musician parents. (On their decennial European vacations, Mr. and Mrs. Fine visit the summer homes of great composers.) But then, that's the point: This book is all about conflicts between what you want and what you think you should have -- sex vs. love, glamour vs. domesticity, superhot one-night stands vs. boring Mr. Rights -- conflicts for which the heroine's part exotic, part unexceptional name serves as a perfect novelistic symbol. (Then again, Rosenfeld has the same kind of name. Hmmm.)
I have to say I wasn't expecting much from Rosenfeld's book after bits of it appeared a few months ago in The New Yorker. I can't remember when the appearance of a pre-publication excerpt in a major magazine has done more of a disservice to an author; the excerpt was a rambling, interminable mess. Rosenfeld's book proceeds chronologically through the various men in Phoebe's life, for whom the chapters are named: "Spitty Clark," the good-natured if slobby frat boy; "Bruce Bledstone," the ultracool professor who salves his adulterous conscience with judicious applications of hip critical theory. ("Marriage is . . . a bourgeois construct.") This structure has a point: You won't understand what Phoebe sees in, say, aimless Kevin McFeeley, into whose affections she drifts "the way others fall asleep at the wheel," unless you've already slept with gorgeous, smug Humphrey Fung -- one of those self-righteously politicized theory majors whose ostentatious feminist "sensitivity" made you rethink the merits of Robert Bly. ("It's been a pleasure pleasuring you," Humphrey officiously tells Phoebe.) Snipping up Rosenfeld's sections and pasting them together was bound to create an incoherent collage. I only hope that people who read the excerpt weren't so put off that they won't pick up the book itself.
Although these vignettes generally end with an "insight" about boys or sex or life ("being comfortable with someone and being attracted to someone were two different things"), the real fun is in the comedy. The latter is nowhere more apparent than in the deliciously detailed evocation of a culturally myopic seventies suburban childhood -- for her independent project in social studies, Phoebe dutifully constructs a papier-mâché model of the Short Hills Mall -- and in the wicked skewering of a certain kind of early-nineties academic pretentiousness. (Phoebe meets that creepy professor in a seminar called "Hegemony 412.") And Rosenfeld has a sharp eye for the way that upwardly mobile young Manhattanites internalize, to their own misery, the banalities of marketing and advertising departments: When Phoebe fantasizes about life with Neil Schmertz, it's not just their "retro modern" décor she envisions but the "androgynous Calvin Klein underwear" they'll both be wearing and the "snacking on seaweed while debating the relative merits of the latest Don DeLillo novel." Hee.
That said, I'm not sure all of this adds up to a novel. As schematic as Rosenfeld's structure is, there's ultimately no sense of -- I don't know what to call it: novelistic heft, maybe, some kind of emotional weight that's accumulated by the time you reach the last installment, which promises that here, at last, is Mr. Right. (You know Bo's Mr. Right because he's charmingly nervous when they first undress.) Why end here? You get the feeling that the book could have consisted of three, or nine, or fifteen more chapters -- that is to say, men -- with no net difference. Part of the problem is Phoebe herself, who despite her wry appeal is a bit of a bore: Why should anyone who stands around unsmilingly in black all the time, exhibiting no discernible interest in anything unrelated to her own ennui, deserve to find a great boyfriend (or girlfriend)? Unlike her ripening body, Phoebe's expectations, her emotional goals, never really evolve. She wanted to be swept away and rescued by Mr. Right in fifth grade, and she still wants to get swept away and rescued by him at the end of the book, too.
I'm not sure the writing here is textured enough to accommodate the invocation of certain women's "issues." Maybe it's fair to blame men for women's body-image problems, even as you expect them to fix everything. But you can't just stick Post-it Notes that say anorexia! in what is essentially a comic romp. It's all a bit glib. "To have appetites was to be disappointed if and when they weren't fulfilled" is the author's armchair analysis of Phoebe's college-era struggle with eating disorders. That aperçu isn't wrong, it's just that by the time you get halfway through a 300-page novel of sexual manners, you're probably within your rights to expect insights more subtle than those you find in the latest issue of Cosmo.
As far as I can tell, Cosmo isn't a target in Candace Bushnell's new collection, one of whose four heroines is a ferociously ambitious journalist who writes a "political/style" column for a major publication and who's married to another famous journalist, but this magazine's name comes up, as do the names of some other local publications. That's only appropriate in what is, after all, a Gotham-insider roman that is so à clef that it's unlikely to be of urgent interest to anyone who doesn't follow "Suzy," or at least "Page Six," with Hasidic fervor. (If you can guess who that "serious journalist" couple is supposed to be, you may get a kick out of this book; if not, not.)
What Bushnell's second book is really about, however, is what her career-making first book was about: women, men, and sex. Like Rosenfeld, she wants her book to be a devastating portrait of sexual mores in a city in which men are merde. But Bushnell, riding on her huge success, has gotten unsubtle: Her female leads are so vacuous ("I don't know where I am going, but I know I'm going somewhere") and their ambitions, however symbolic of larger contentments, so transparently superficial ("What do you want out of life?" "I want to have a good summer") that this casually assembled series of four novellas can't rise to the level of the biting satire at which it so desperately aims. This is too bad, because there are some hilarious bits here, not least of which is a scene set in a vast English country house where "all the children had names like Tyrolean and Philomena." If any of Bushnell's four blondes had been as charming as dark-haired Phoebe Fine, this book might have had a chance -- you might have felt something other than a vague regret that you hadn't read last month's W. But Bushnell, like her emotionally jaundiced ex-models and bored trophy wives, is way past the point of finding innocents -- or innocence -- interesting.
Or is she? The English escapade at the end of Bushnell's novel concludes with a flight back to New York in which the journalist heroine meets a dashing swain who's as obviously intended to be Mr. Right as Bo Pierce is. After all of the grindingly unpleasurable couplings in these two novels, I found this naked optimism weirdly moving. In the end, both novels remind you of nothing so much as the class slut from high-school days -- the one whose casualness about sex, whose willingness to put out, were such obvious covers for loneliness and insecurity. It's easy to guess why each author felt that a mask of ironic detachment was the right one to wear -- it's a good cover. Maybe a really moving (as opposed to merely amusing) novel about sex in the city would, instead of taking off its clothes, wear its heart more conspicuously on its black Prada sleeve.