This time around, it's success and the city

Candace Bushnell discovers women who are focused on the boardroom, not the bedroom

September 22, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,sun reporter

"So, what are you wearing right now?"

It's a kinky question, especially over the phone. But if glamour girl Candace Bushnell is on the line, it must be asked. She huskily describes a silk Tory Burch shirt paired with brown velvet pants and black velvet Yves Saint Laurent sandals. It seems that the Sex and the City creator - who has just stepped off a plane in Nashville, part of a whirlwind publicity tour for her latest book, Lipstick Jungle - wears strappy shoes even deep in cowboy boot territory.

"Just for the fun of it," she confides.

There. We've gotten the clothes out of the way, as handily as one of Bushnell's Manhattan bad boys. But it's just as well, because high fashion and urban frippery aren't dominant themes in her new novel, at least compared to her earlier books. Lipstick Jungle - which Bushnell will promote at this weekend's Baltimore Book Festival - is about sharp-elbowed career gals in their mid-40s who are more concerned with self-fulfillment than self-adornment, and more success- than sex-obsessed.

That's because 46-year-old Bushnell has decided that "success is the new sex."

"There is an erotic component to sex and career," she explained. "It's sexy to pursue something and get it, and it's exciting, women going for the gold in their own lives."

Also, she's got a hunch that success, like sex, sells.

"I've noticed in the past five years that women are talking less about relationships and sex and more about careers," Bushnell said.

Lipstick Jungle tries to channel these professional anxieties and desires the way Sex and the City tapped sexual ones. Bushnell is sure that readers will find the workday woes of her new heroines just as fabulous as the Saturday night sexscapades of Carrie Bradshaw and her Cosmo-slamming crew.

Bushnell's fourth work of fiction, Lipstick Jungle tells the story of three powerhouse women: a publisher, a movie producer and a fashion designer. Just as most of her earlier projects were drawn from life (in the mid-1990s, she notoriously "researched" her New York Observer column that would later become Sex and the City), the new characters are also based on composites of people in Bushnell's social world. To get the business details down, she interviewed female friends who work in film and fashion. (She figured she knew enough about publishing.)

These ladies are not boy-crazy. They have bratty kids and droopy breasts. Their high-powered careers rule their lives.

This shift in subject reflects changes in Bushnell's personal life since her Sex and the City days. When she landed the column in 1994, she was at an emotional low: A 30-something freelance writer living on as little as $10,000 a year. But then the column became a New York sensation, and, in 1996, a book. In 1998, the book grew into an HBO series that is credited with transforming discussions of sex in America.

Bushnell has become the kind of woman who can retreat "to the country" - in other words, Connecticut - for long stretches, and shop legitimately at Ralph Lauren. She's not even single any more: In 2002, she married New York City Ballet principal dancer Charles Askegard, who is 10 years her junior.

This author is a bona fide success story, but whether her new novel will likewise triumph is another question. Neither of Bushnell's two other books (Four Blondes; Trading Up) have been as influential as her first, and critics haven't all been pleased with Lipstick Jungle: "After almost 400 pages the reader will have tired of Bushnell's leaden, clumsy prose and malapropisms," Ann Marlowe wrote on Others contend that the book's vision of feminism - a sorority of moguls - feels dated, not controversial.

Bushnell's not deterred.

When Sex and the City first surfaced, "those kinds of female 30-something characters were a little bit ahead of their time," she said. "When the TV series came out, there were bad reviews. People said, `Who are these women?' But then people said, `I'm like these women, they're like me and my friends.'"

Lipstick Jungle will follow suit, she said. The book just came out this month and already the television rights are in the process of being sold. The phrase "lipstick jungle" - which Bushnell believes originally referred to the cosmetics industry in the '50s and '60s, - is even now flashing across Blackberry screens all over Manhattan, Bushnell claims, and surfacing in the conversations of the super-cool. To her trend-spotting eyes, the writing is on the wall. In lipstick.

If you go Candace Bushnell speaks at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Literary Salon at the Baltimore Book Festival, Mount Vernon Place

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