Most writers have on their laptops at least one draft of a novel that is about 100 pages long. It's the sort of project that starts out strong and inspired but soon loses steam. And so it sits, until the Muse strikes again. And it often sits there for a long time.
That's what Candace Bushnell's latest book, Killing Monica feels like. A half-baked first draft of a book that was likely written a long time ago and was dusted off in order to fulfill a book contract. It's goofy chick lit of the flavor that was popular in the early 2000s and lacks any sensibilities of modern women.
In Killing Monica, best-selling novelist Pandy "PJ" Wallis, who shares many similar details to Bushnell, becomes distraught after publishers reject a historical novel she worked on tirelessly. Pandy, you see, has made a fortune and a name for herself writing a series of popular books about a Monica, a sassy, fashionable Manhattan woman. Monica drinks pink champagne in lieu of Carrie Bradshaw's Cosmos and even has a shoe named after her, because isn't that every woman's dream? (I think those are all the chick lit cliches that are legally allowed in one book.)
The Monica books have been made into movies which also launched the career of an actress named SondraBeth Schnowzer. SondraBeth seems to be a bizarro world version of Sarah Jessica Parker. SondraBeth and Pandy become best friends, party a lot and eventually have a falling out over a guy, because this is an outdated chick lit novel and that's the only thing two women could care about.
The majority of Killing Monica focuses on Pandy and SondraBeth's backstory. A drinking game could be made out of all the F-bombs Bushnell uses (isn't swearing the sign of a limited vocabulary?) along with every reference to recreational drug use by a middle-aged woman. (Pandy is 45 years old.)
Bushnell practically invented the chick lit genre when her mid-1990s "Sex and the City" New York Observer columns were collected into a book and then adapted as the basis for the hit HBO series. And that's the root of the problem with Killing Monica: Bushnell hasn't evolved past pre-Guiliani Manhattan or explored the values of women post-Sheryl Sandberg. The book is full of bizarre anachronisms that would jar even a first-time tourist. At one point when a character is standing on Tenth Avenue right off of the Hudson River Park, she writes, "This part of Manhattan was so deserted, there wasn't even a deli." Did Bushnell miss the memo about the Highline or the new Whitney museum? Does she not know that children are now educated -- at over $40,000 a pop -- at Avenues: The World School, which is on Tenth Avenue? (There is a deli right next door to it.) Or that some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan is now egads! west of Seventh Avenue?
The book is supposed to take place in the present day -- people are using iPhones and being tracked by them -- but Bushnell resorts to old versions of Manhattan in order to push the paper-thin plot along. She also doesn't seem to grasp that there is life in other boroughs and refers to Co-Op City as "Those outlying brown brick buildings in the marshes of the Bronx."
Bushnell has some arcane ideas about women and dating, which may be the most offensive aspects of the book. There are many jokes about how online dating is gauche, even though studies show that about a third of people who marry these days met their partner online. One of the saddest exchanges is on page 252, when Bushnell reinforces the idea that women over 40 aren't viable dating partners.
Pandy says,"And now that I'm divorced, Monica is going to have to get divorced, too. And then she's going to have to try online dating."
To which SondraBeth replies, "Dating again? She's forty-five, for Christ's sake."
There is another long,unfortunate exchange between Pandy and her future mother-in-law, MJ, who says, "Smart women can usually get married if they want to." This is followed by, "If a woman gets one good man in her life, she's lucky. She should be happy. Asking for two good men is tempting fate." (Insert eye roll here.)
There is also an explanation of something called a "Black Wedding," which, according to Bushnell, is a popular fantasy among women in England. "You wished for the Black Wedding -- your husband's funeral. You'd get the money and lifestyle and the children without the hassle of the man."
The anti-man rhetoric is thick in Killing Monica. Pandy is vehement about never letting the Monica character marry in any of the books. Men who have wronged either Pandy or SondraBeth are referenced in uninspired expletives. There is also a disturbing scene in which Pandy's soon-to-be ex-husband is literally strapped to a billboard high above Spring Street and heckled by a huge crowd in a public shaming.
It's slap sticky and sophomoric, but more important is that it's bizarrely bad work from a woman whose other books have been delightfully entertaining. Bushnell's work was popular -- and perhaps even reflective -- of a certain era in New York City. But that era is over. The Millennials who are now taking over the workforce were in middle school or younger when the first "Sex and the City" columns were written, and their lives are much more rich than anything the flat dilettantes in Killing Monica are doing. None of Pandy's friends have jobs and they twitter their days away at a SoHo House-esque pool, or drinking heavily into the night on weekdays.
We've become picky about how females are portrayed in the media. Young girls, in an effort to encourage them to be the best versions of themselves, are often seen as scientifically-minded scholar athletes. 20-somethings are career-focused and independent. There is an entire cottage industry of women's empowerment conferences that aim to help women to take control of their careers, bodies, and futures. When books like Killing Monica come along -- full of cliches -- it's frustrating, given how much work has been done to promote strong, powerful women.
It's baffling as to why Bushnell perpetuates meek stereotypes of women when she has such a vast fan base and an incredible opportunity to create modern characters and relevant themes. Perhaps one of these days she will join us for brunch, here in 2015.
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