Trading Up , by Candace Bushnell. Hyperion, 404 pages, $24.95.
Vanity Fair is a Victorian novel without a heroine-very daring of William Makepeace Thackeray. Trading Up is a sex-and-shopping novel without an orgasm-very daring of Candace Bushnell. The author of Sex and the City denies us even a single ecstatic shag-no sweaty, shattering climax, no yodeling release. And here’s the kicker: Trading Up is still perfectly satisfying, exactly what one hopes for in a book that features on the cover a pair of seductive, stocking-clad legs. Put it this way: When it was over, I felt the urge to light up a cigarette and ask Candace if it was as good for her as it was for me.
Trading Up has a wonderfully exact title: It’s about Janey Wilcox, a beautiful model who began to wonder when she was barely more than a girl “if there was some way she could ratchet herself up a social notch or two.” (The ratcheting is continuous in these pages, one repetitive action substituting for another.) We’ve met Janey before, in Ms. Bushnell’s 4 Blondes ; when we first lay eyes on her in the new novel, she’s still single, and driving a silver Porsche Boxter out to the Hamptons; she’s passed by a man driving a hunter green Ferrari and promptly falls in love; three months later, she’s married to another man who drives a hotter set of wheels, “a rare 1948 Jaguar XK 120 with a six-cylinder engine.” I remembered, as I was reading, a high-school English teacher who tried to inch me closer to Shakespeare by telling me to think of Macbeth as a guy whose wife pushes him to trade in his Volkswagen for a Mercedes.
In Macbeth , the way to get ahead is to commit murder; in Trading Up , sex is the lever. Janey owes her Porsche to Victoria’s Secret: She models skimpy underwear-her figure is on display at every other bus stop in Manhattan. Her job is to sell, and sex is the hook. Not only is this socially acceptable, it makes her a celebrity and therefore socially desirable. The man with the Jaguar, the one she marries, a high-flying cable-television executive named Selden Rose (a tip of the hat to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth ), wants her as a trophy wife: “He was already beginning to label her in his mind ‘model … and international beauty.’” Her beauty, inextricably associated with sex, is in every conceivable way her selling point.
But Janey is not just another pretty face. Having married a rich man with a powerful job, she wants more. She wants … well, what she certainly doesn’t want is a mansion in Greenwich and a brood of babies. She’d rather have, for example, “the biggest, grandest apartment in New York City, and the most expensive”-which a close friend’s husband has just bought for $30 million. So why not trade up? Or as Macbeth would say, “’twere well / It were done quickly.” Janey drops to her knees.
The action, so to speak, takes place in 2000, well after Bill Clinton has stamped the Presidential seal on the new reality of the 1990′s-”after all, everyone knew a blow job wasn’t really sex.” But is Janey Wilcox in fact a whore? Or is she a new brand of feminist, somewhere way beyond neo-? The plot turns on these questions, and so does the moral of the story. As Janey realizes in a rare moment of honest introspection, she’s missing “some essential piece”: What she does is crucially disconnected from what she feels. “Despite all the men she’d slept with in the past fifteen years, she’d had only six orgasms in her entire life.” Will Janey find her missing part? Will orgasm ever become an integral part of her sex life? And does someone who’s identified on page 4 as a “narcissistic asshole” really deserve to get her way on page 404?
I’m not telling. I will say, however, that Ms. Bushnell has a grand time getting there. You know you’re going to like it when you start to read about a vast, ruthless media conglomerate called Splatch Verner. You’re already hooked by the time you catch a glimpse of Comstock Dibble, head of Parador pictures (“one of the most powerful men in the movie business”), “squeezed … into a skin-tight black Prada shirt with a zipper up the front and … wearing heavy black Prada sandals.” Dibble is “sweating profusely, mopping his face with a linen handkerchief, but then again, he was always sweating, as if the very act of living were an exertion.” When you meet Craig Edgers, author of a surprise best-seller, a “great tome” called The Embarrassments , it’s gravy. Edgers worries about the possibility of ending up on the cover of Time ; he tells Janey, “I don’t want to sully my literary reputation by appearing in a magazine aimed for the common populace.”
Trading Up , which is sure to delight the common populace, won’t sully the reputation of anyone who’s not vain, corrupt or just plain foolish. In the grand tradition of New York novels, it doesn’t rank with The House of Mirth , or The Great Gatsby , even The Bonfire of the Vanities . Still, in her light-hearted, engaging way, Ms. Bushnell delivers on her promise, spelled out on the very first page, to show us our city “in all its magnificent, vulgar, and ruthless glory.”
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .