Book Review: Lipstick Jungle by Candace Bushnell

I never watched ‘Sex in the City’, not even in its tame TBS format. My thought was, why would I want to watch a bunch of white women gab and do sex? I got better things to do with my time.

lipstick jungleWell, after the heavy readings this past winter, I wanted something light. Real light. Brain dead light. So I picked up Lipstick Jungle. And I gotta say, it was pretty much what I expected it to be, except it happened to be rich white women gabbing and doing sex.
If I had read this at any other time, I would dropped it so fast, but like I said, after Kindred, this was actually a welcome read. I could turn off my mind, sort of, and read the candy gloss that was this novel. And I have to say, it’s not…all…bad…

There are three women this book follows: Victory Ford, a fashion designer out to find a new look; Wendy Healy, president of a movie studio trying to finish the ‘perfect’ picture, and Nico O’Neilly, editor of a chic magazine and looking to move up in the ranks. Their various love woes are as ambitious as their jobs: Victory finds herself dating a multi-billionaire, Wendy’s marriage to her boytoy husband is on the rocks, and Nico is having an affair with a male model during a satisfying but sexless marriage. Drama! Ambition! Tension! Sex!

Out of the three, I found Victory’s story to be the most interesting and fun to read. She’s the most down-to-earth woman in the book–although she’s a successful designer, she still uses cabs and subways to get around and wants to be successful on her own terms, not because of a billionaire boyfriend. To her, success isn’t money so much as creating clothes that people will like and wear. There’s a wonderful scene where Bushnell points a camera into Victory’s head (the whole book reads kind of like a screenplay of sorts–it’s third person, but it feels somewhat removed from the characters, as if the story is an outside narrator). Anyway, we see Victory as she strains to find a new look for the fall line, which consists of staring at the same swatches of fabric over and over until her assistant comes in to see her lying on the floor, hands pressed over her eyes. But the assistant is used to such behavior. Nice.

Wendy’s problems would come second, but only because, again, the reader is removed enough to see that Wendy does have a problem. Bushnell portrays her as a woman who wants to be successful both in her job and as a mother. Unfortunately, the two don’t mesh well together. She has to spend long periods away from her family to oversee a movie project, and when she’s home, she tries to please her non-ambitious, soft-living husband by letting him do as pretty much as he pleases. When he tells he wants a divorce, she scoffs, thinking that it’s him being his usual whiny self. But when she has to fly overseas and comes back to the locks on their apartment changed, the husband and children gone, and a summons to appear in court, she realizes just how serious he is. Her attempt to control the situation the only way she knows how: by giving out money or offering herself for sex, makes things even worse.

Now, I think Bushnell is trying to make a point here about successful women and successful mothering. In fact, it’s a thread throughout the whole book: that women can be just as successful as men, that they can have it all. But in the case of Wendy, you can see it just doesn’t compute. Maybe her husband is a lazy, money-sucking nobody, but still, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy sometimes. The children are spoiled out of their gourd, nannies march in and out, and when Wendy attempts to take the children away on her own, it’s obvious that the kids prefer their dad, because, well, he knows them. The solution Wendy finally comes up with is so laughingly false, it’s almost sad. Bushnell tries to make it so that it’s a wonderful solution, a feminist finger to the men who solve their problems this way, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Man, those kids are gonna be so screwed up when they get older.”

Nico’s story really didn’t have much tension in it dramawise. Sure, she has an affair, which she tells herself that she needs because she doesn’t get sex in her otherwise happy marriage, and she agonizes over backstabbing someone who deserves it so she could get his job, but really, I found Nico to be the most boring of the three. Perhaps her husband should have found out. Perhaps there really should have been a threat to her job. But no–her ambitions, goals, and desires are neatly wrapped up in a nice, little boring package. Nico, of course, has the only sex scenes in the book (understandably), but eventually, the affair peters out into routine before being contrivedly broken off–much like Nico’s storyline, in fact. There are a couple of funny moments when the boytoy proves he’s not much in the brains department.

It is interesting how men are portrayed in this book as either power-hungry, overly ambitious men used to having their own way or soft, dumb, spoiled boytoys. We don’t see much of Nico’s husband, so we don’t know why he’s married to her or why he’s so oblivious (or maybe he’s not. Who knows?) Nor do we know what Nico’s driver thinks in taking her to her lover’s apartment. Or maybe I’m just reading into characters that shouldn’t be read into anyway. This is, after all, a chick’s book.

Actually, I can’t say that. With all the women’s strong ambitions for success and money, this book actually feels more like an anti-chick flick. Aside from Victory, there’s nothing really soft or feminine about Wendy or Nico. And oddly, it’s Victory who makes a conscious effort to change her harsh opinion about men after a disastrous night in Paris. The other two women simply form their solutions based on how their male peers would handle the situation. There’s no sense of them triumphing over their problems using their female wiles. Instead, they become strangely male in their decisions. Therefore, at the end of the book, when the three women stand together and Nico responds to Wendy’s statement that it’s a jungle out there, “No girls…it’s a Lipstick Jungle.”, it feels so incredibly false.

But you know what? It’s July. I shouldn’t be thinking so hard about this book. I wanted lite reading, and by golly, I should treat it as such. This book gets two 1/2 lipsticks out of five, and I have a feeling that if I read this book at any other time, the lipstick rating would be worn down to a nubbish smear in its tube.