Watch out, girls, it’s a jungle out there. No, I’m not talking about the obvious dangers—the creep eyeballing you on the subway; the raucous gang trailing close behind as you hurry home to the apartment; the silicone-enhanced bimbos hitting on your boyfriend. That’s just life in the city. I’m talking about the dangers that lurk when a woman dons her Armani suit and steps into her $600 stilettos and heads for the corporate office. That’s when she has to watch her back. Luckily, we have Candace Bushnell’s new novel, Lipstick Jungle, to guide us safely past the many pitfalls and show us how the big girls navigate the torturous path to mega-success.
Meet Victory Ford, fashion designer to the stars, who has shows in Bryant Park and boutiques emblazoned with her name in Japan. She has two best friends: Wendy Healy, president of Parador Pictures, and Nico O’Neilly, editor-in-chief of Bonfire magazine. These three women are talented, successful and sexy—Carrie Bradshaw’s older sisters-in-arms. As part of the city’s power elite, they’re immediately hailed by the paparazzi who loiter outside the galas and openings they attend. Their doings are fodder for Page Six. When they meet for lunch at Michael’s (“the high-priced canteen for the city’s movers and shakers, some of whom were so addicted to the action that they lunched there every day as if it were an exclusive country club”), the maître d’ automatically ushers them to one of the “hot” tables.
But all that glitz isn’t enough for our girls. You see, while Victory, Nico and Wendy have climbed high, they haven’t quite reached the pinnacle. And damn it, they want to: “[T]hat was the problem with success: Once you got a taste of it, you wanted more and more. And there was nothing like success in New York City.”
Wendy craves a gold statuette. While most of the movies she’s green-lighted have been box-office hits, none has won the Oscar for Best Picture. She’s pinning her hopes on Ragged Pilgrim, a pet project she’s been working on for years.
Victory hungers for a corporate deal that will bring in some truly serious money and give her the means to design haute couture in addition to her prêt-à-porter line.
Nico O’Neilly, the most coolly calculating of the three, has a long-range goal: She wants to be the first woman C.E.O. of Splatch-Verner, the multimedia company that owns not only Bonfire magazine but also Parador Pictures, Wendy’s company.
To realize their dreams, these women have to use their talent, brains and ambition to identify and eliminate the competition, survive any and all counterattacks, and overcome whatever nasty setbacks life throws at them. (Are you feeling sorry for them yet?)
Fans of Ms. Bushnell’s earlier novels will delight in the descriptions that give Lipstick Jungle its brilliant gloss. She generously indulges our insatiable appetite for luxury goods: Cristal and Dom Perignon are the drink of choice, practically everyone rides in black town cars or S.U.V.’s, corporate jets, helicopters; nifty pat-on-the-back presents to oneself include glittery baubles from Sotheby’s; hour-long riding lessons at Chelsea Piers cost $250 a pop— a beginner pony purchased in Palm Beach, a cool fifty thou. Even lovers come with a top-of-the-line label. Here’s bored Nico, straying from her marriage: “Oh God, she thought. God, she was really having a good time. Could it get any better than this, having great sex with a fucking Calvin Klein underwear model?” Bonus points: Nico and the CK model are doing it in the kitchen!
A gifted observer of this rich slice of Manhattan society, Ms. Bushnell isn’t afraid to challenge herself: The high-powered heroines of Lipstick Jungle are very intimidating examples of the species, devoted to strategizing about their next professional coup, and in the beginning of the novel it’s hard to share their self-absorbed enthusiasm. Luckily, Ms. Bushnell knows this very well. And so she expertly reveals the flaws and heart-rending cracks in her heroines’ private lives.
The best example is her unflinching portrayal of Wendy’s and Nico’s marriages. (Victory, unwilling to accommodate a man in her life, has remained single). Wendy and Nico have each been married for more than a decade and have children. Not surprisingly, these über–career women make lousy mothers and wives.
Nico’s husband, Seymour, a financial genius, has quit the corporate world. He now teaches a course at Columbia and breeds and shows dachshunds. His real role, though, is to act as Nico’s guru. They plot and analyze together, and he cheers her victories from the sidelines. Their marriage is more of a business partnership, and one can’t help wondering how much Seymour knows about Nico’s trysts with her brand-name boy-toy. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to mind—not so long as he can enjoy the perks that come with being Mr. Nico O’Neilly.
Wendy’s marriage is not nearly as tidy or soulless as Nico’s. She’s married to Shane, a failed screenwriter and restaurateur who seethes with resentment at his wife’s glamorous career and jumbo salary. Ms. Bushnell orchestrates a neat role reversal: Shane is the unhappy housewife. With help from a full-time English nanny (whose salary is $150,000 a year: “Wendy liked to joke that while most nannies were paid $100,000, Mrs. Minniver’s accent cost an extra $50,000”), Shane deals with the three kids and spends obscene amounts of Wendy’s money. Meanwhile, Wendy gets to escape to her office at Parador Pictures. Their loft is a mess, and so is their sex life: “She must have sex with Shane that night. And proper sex,” Wendy tells herself. “In the past few months, Shane had gotten very lazy about sex, or maybe he was just spoiled. He allowed her to give him blow jobs, but then afterward he rolled over and went to sleep. It really bothered her but she didn’t like to hassle him too much.” Even though we guess what’s coming, Ms. Bushnell’s description of their train-wreck marriage is masterful. It’s impossible not to watch with horror as Wendy hurtles unknowingly toward disaster.
Despite the healthy dose of superiority we feel toward Wendy—who seems the only one not to have seen the obvious warning signs about her family life—we nevertheless end up rooting for her and applaud when she not only survives the worst but also gets her cherished dream and a happy ending to boot. Ditto for Victory and Nico. I won’t spoil the fun by telling you what happens to them. Let’s just say it’s classic Bushnell.
But if, as you read, the storyline of these three New York pals seems a bit rushed—blurred like the view from a Ferrari at full throttle—remember: This is life in the fast lane.
Laura Moore is the author of In Your Eyes (Ballantine). Her next book, also from Ballantine, will be out in 2006.