One Fifth Avenue
By Candace Bushnell
Hyperion, 433 pages, $25.95
When Candace Bushnell started writing her “Sex and the City” column in this newspaper in 1994, Rudy Giuliani was mayor, the average price of a Manhattan apartment was $450,000 and very few people had Internet access at home. To judge by her latest novel, One Fifth Avenue, it seems likely that Ms. Bushnell is nostalgic for at least two out of the three.
In real life, One Fifth Avenue is an imposing co-op building just north of Washington Square Park; its ground floor houses the Mario Batali restaurant Otto. By using the venerable address as the setting of this book, Ms. Bushnell has finally acknowledged that the one thing more significant than sex in this city is, in fact, real estate—and the two are, in more cases than not, intertwined.
It’s easy to forget that Ms. Bushnell’s columns from the mid-1990s are much darker than the HBO television series starring Sarah Jessica Parker; her New York was always, and especially for single women over 35, a ruthless, unforgiving place. But now, in 2008, it’s entered an especially mercenary age. Thanks in large part to the Internet, familiar power structures have been upended and, to an omniscient narrator’s palpable horror, the city has been overrun by amoral youngsters who probably decided to move to New York in part because of Sex and the City. Recall that on the television series, Carrie and her friends displayed a wariness of the Internet; in an episode in 2001, Carrie is on the phone with Miranda when she notices her boyfriend, Aidan, pop up on IM. Carrie immediately ducks and, panicked, asks Miranda, “Can he see me?” In One Fifth, Ms. Bushnell’s characters are neatly divided along generational lines: Those under 30 are perhaps too Internet-savvy, while those over 40 are hopelessly out of date.
The book opens with the introduction of glamorous, yet still single, 45-year-old actress Schiffer Diamond, who’s returned after a hiatus to New York—and her long-empty apartment in One Fifth—to star in a television show. Schiffer used to date one of the building’s other residents, a single 40-something writer named Philip Oakland, but just when the reader thinks that Schiffer and Philip might get back together, a 22-year-old tartlet named Lola Fabrikant enters the picture and promptly gets herself hired as Philip’s “research assistant.” Lola, who has moved to New York just after graduating from college in Virginia, is like a hypersexualized version of the dating columnist and blogger Julia Allison, and it’s not a stretch to read a visceral dislike for Ms. Allison—who has held herself up as the inheritor of Carrie Bradshaw’s mantle—in Ms. Bushnell’s portrayal of this young creature, who got breast implants for her 18th birthday and held a pool party for her high-school friends to show them off. She text-messages constantly and gets Brazilian bikini waxes (unfamiliar territory for Philip). She is “a child of pharmacology, having grown up with a bevy of prescription pills for all that might ail her.” Rebuffed along with friends at two clubs in the meatpacking district, forced to wait in line for 45 minutes at a third, Lola reflects at the end of the night: “This was no way to live” and ponders needing “to find a way to break into New York’s glamorous inner circle.”
How is 2008 Manhattan different from 1998 Manhattan? “Every girl wants to get married now,” Lola tells Philip. “And they want to do it while they’re young.”
“I thought they wanted to have careers and take over the world by thirty,” he responds.
“That was older Gen Y. All the girls I know want to get married and have kids right away. They don’t want to end up like their mothers.”
“What’s wrong with their mothers?”
“They’re unhappy. Girls my age won’t put up with unhappiness.”
The story of Lola and Philip’s relationship is one of a series of interconnected story lines in One Fifth (including a halfhearted attempt at a jewel-heist mystery). There’s the saga of Mindy and James Gooch, who live in a warren of tiny rooms on the ground floor of the building, an apartment cobbled together over the years from storage areas and maids’ rooms that the board (which Mindy now chairs) sold to the Gooches. Mindy is a stereotypical bitter career woman who starts a blog about her marriage and about being middle-aged that seems like a joke, but then becomes wildly successful. (To wit: “Mindy’s conclusion was that marriage was like democracy—imperfect but still the best system women had. It was certainly better than prostitution.”) James is a failed novelist whose latest book, to his and everyone else’s surprise, turns out to also be wildly successful; Ms. Bushnell explores what happens when two people who have always been just on the outskirts of Manhattan success do, finally, find success. Mindy is also a symbol for the Graydon Carters and Kurt Andersens of the world, who make names for themselves early on by mocking the establishment, and then become the establishment. When Mindy complains about the Web site “Snarker” (no points for subtlety there!), which has taken to mocking her and her blog, James reminds Mindy that 20 years earlier, she wrote a story calling “that billionaire” a “short-fingered vulgarian”; Mr. Carter famously called Donald Trump that very epithet in Spy.
But the new breed of youngsters intent on highlighting the hypocrisy of their elders is meaner and, well, snarkier than their forebears, Ms. Bushnell implies. Their number is led by a smarmy 20-something named Thayer Core, who lives in a tiny East Village walk-up and yet feels qualified to lob his verbal grenades at the rest of Manhattan (including several residents of One Fifth). Thayer is a despicable character, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that she was personally offended by things written about her on Gawker (where, full disclosure, I used to work). And yet, Ms. Bushnell’s caricature of the Web site and its writers falls victim to the very same snarky, self-satisfied kind of writing she accuses the new generation of perpetuating.
There are few, if any, sympathetic characters in One Fifth; not even the heroine, the beautiful yet slightly boring Annalisa Rice. Annalisa and her hedge-fund husband, Paul, move into an enormous penthouse apartment vacated by the Brooke Astor-esque nonagenarian society hostess Louise Houghton, who died after falling on her terrace during a thunderstorm. Paul has become enormously wealthy very quickly and sees nothing wrong in throwing his wealth around like a cudgel; he expects the rest of the building to cater to his every whim, including allowing through-the-wall air-conditioners to be installed in the landmarked building. New York, Ms. Bushnell seems to imply, has ensured its doom by allowing the Paul Rices of the world to run roughshod over … well, everything. And yet, New York has also become reliant on the Paul Rices of the world for survival.
Indeed, if this is a novel about Old New York vs. New New York, it’s also embodied by the character of Billy Litchfield, a 54-year-old gay society hanger-on who’s lived his 30-odd years in a rent-stabilized apartment down the street from One Fifth. Billy takes Annalisa under his wing, instructing her what she must do to join the city’s inner social circle, sounding like nothing if not 20 years or so out of date. (“You’ll rise each morning and exercise, not simply to look attractive but to build endurance. Most ladies prefer yoga … At the end of the day, you’ll prepare for an evening out, which may include two or three cocktail parties and a dinner. Some will be black-tie charity events where you’ll be expected to wear a gown and never the same dress twice.”) But Billy is a tragic figure, almost a laughingstock. Is Ms. Bushnell fearful that this is what she, too, might become, once all the youngsters with their iPhones (Ms. Bushnell makes sure that everyone under the age of 30 has one) forget about her?
Doree Shafrir is a senior editor at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.