Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Review - Candace Bushnell's One Fifth Avenue

One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell
Published by: Voice
Publication Date: January 1st, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 433 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

One Fifth Avenue is a residence unlike any other. The people who live there love the building more then they do their spouses, children, or lovers. The older residents represent a golden bohemian age of New York with famous writers, gossip columnists, actresses, and old socialites. When the building's oldest resident dies her three story penthouse becomes a focal point for all the residents. Mindy Gooch, the head of the building's board and denizen of the worst apartment in the building dreams of dividing up the unit and claiming the top floor ballroom as her own. But seeing as Mindy doesn't have the money she will thwart the plans of others who want to break up the apartment, notably the author Philip Oakland's Aunt Enid, who wants one of the floors for him to expand his apartment. Mindy therefore strong arms a young couple with new money obtained dubiously through hedge funds to buy the apartment and what ensues could easily be considered war. Paul Rice views that if he paid $20 million for an apartment, well, everyone in the building should do as he says. They should let him have the one parking space and unsightly air conditioners. They should bow down to his every wish. At least his wife is likable. But the Rice's arrival signals a time of trials for One Fifth which they will all hopefully survive, Enid at least has newly lowered expectations and hopes to get the twenty two year old Lola out of her nephew's bed and Philip back with the lovely age appropriate actress Schiffer Diamond. But the hearts and "heads" of men might be harder to control then the fate of a beloved building.

No one can doubt the place Sex and the City has carved out for itself in our cultural zeitgeist. It has reshaped New York City for young women in such a way that I actually know someone whose ambition in life was to be a Sex and the City tour guide. This for her was the ultimate dream, the highest aspiration of her life. I was never on this bandwagon. Yes I knew about the show because I had watched one or two episodes back in 1998 with my mom to see what it was all about, but we both agreed rather quickly that this just wasn't our type of show, we're more into someone being murdered with a shoe versus a discussion of the shoe being Louboutin or Manolo Blahnik. Even Candace Bushnell has jumped on her own bandwagon being self-referential and meta with the character of Lola being obsessed with Sex and the City. Therefore when looking through my shelves to see how to round out my Chick Lit reading for the month I thought perhaps I should include an American author to try to get some kind of balance to this British dominated genre. So that's how I finally picked up a Candace Bushnell book thinking that I'd get some American Chick Lit... boy was I wrong. One Fifth Avenue is not Chick Lit, it's like a New York version of Maupin's Tales of the City where all the characters are unlikable with oddly graphic sex interspersed throughout the text. In other words, not what I was expecting. But I was willing to give the book the benefit of the doubt only to have it repeatedly dig itself into a deeper and deeper hole.

Firstly I want to address the issue of Lola. Lola is the wet dream of all middle aged men. She's perfect in body, with lipo and breast augmentation. Her libido is insatiable and she's willing to do most anything to get her way, sexual favors for cash is fine by her. And while she might not have Daddy issues she likes her men older so they can be her sugar daddies. I have issues with this trend. There's a part of me that knows this does happen, there is truth in this situation that Bushnell is writing about. Also Lola isn't the most likable character so I do wonder, is Bushnell taking the piss a little, but it's not enough. The problem I have is she is perpetuating this "manchild" dream that come midlife crisis there's a hot bodied twentysomething for every man out there. I get why the male dominated media wants to continue this trend, when they reach middle age they want this dream for themselves. I see it again and again in movies and television shows and books, but these are written, produced, and directed by men! Candace Bushnell is a woman. How about some women's lib? How about breaking free of the sexual fantasies of older males and writing something different, something new? There can be no change in this trend if even female writers are willing to accept the status quo.

Yet Lola is just one of a plethora of unlikable characters. There is not one character who you can latch onto as good or appealing. I've said it what seems like a thousand times before and what I bet will be a thousand times more; you need at least a likable character, someone to give you an entre into this book world. If you're going to play the antihero card, which you can do, look to Thackery and Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, at least have a plot with interest, instead of having me read hundreds of pages about vapid lives of people who think they are entitled. There's a part of me that really thinks that this book would not fly off the shelves in 2014 as it did in 2008. Back in 2008 there was more hope in the world, we, as a society, might have found a glimpse into this elite world as titillating and interesting. Since then things have kind of gone to hell and the 1% that is represented by all the characters in this book, they have not fared well among us lower classes. Such wealth and excess isn't escapist for us, it's aggravating. I couldn't find any humor in a man spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on fish. There wasn't any wry chuckling and me thinking "oh those crazy rich bastards, what will they do next?" There was me going, can a burn this building to the ground with all these indulgent whiners trapped inside? You'd think that the "poorer" people in the book would be sympathetic, but no, they are even more annoying then the already affluent because of their money grubbing tendencies. I just want to wash my brain out after reading this book.

If, as the blurbs say, Bushnell is the modern day Wharton with a little of F. Scott Fitzgerald thrown in, chronicling New York and it's never changing passions and desires, well I weep for our modern age. She is no Wharton, she is no James, she is no Fitzgerald. Bushnell is a vapid and shallow storyteller that gives us no insight, no depth. This book aggravated, annoyed, and insulted me on almost every page. There was a romance and a vibrancy in Wharton's Gilded Age and even Fitzgerald's Jazz Age, a world you wanted to go to. When I first visited Washington Square Park these thoughts crossed my mind, I was walking in the steps of greatness. I'm going back to New York this summer and I will once again be walking in that park, I can only hope that by then I will have removed this book fully from my memory because as I walk through the arc up fifth avenue I don't want to being thinking about the people at One Fifth, I want to be thinking about the world as it was in bygone days, not this world of Bushnell's, never this world of hers. But perhaps I should look on Bushnell with pity. This book might be a cry to be a part of this world. Perhaps my friend who said Candace Bushnell had one good idea was right. She captured something with Sex and the City and she will never be able to get that kind of buzz again. She's scrabbling to stay a part of this world. Why else would she be now writing prequels except to cash in on her own previous success? Maybe Philip is Bushnell? Never able to recapture what she once had. That actually makes me a little bit smug and gleeful.


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