Book Article

Sensation And Sensibility

The new novel from Mrs. ''Sex and the City.'' Candace Bushnell and why she's now making like Jane Austen

Candace Bushnell | 'SEX' SELLS Bushnell (posing with a model) exposes New York in her first novel
Image credit: Candace Bushnell Photograph by Zach Gold
'SEX' SELLS Bushnell (posing with a model) exposes New York in her first novel

''I'm just wearing...I think these might be Ralph Lauren pants -- I'm not terribly dressed up -- and this is a Prada shirt I got last year, and these are Prada shoes that I got last year. But this is this new Prada bag! Everybody loves this bag. The coat is Tuleh.'' The coat lining is creamy aqua and printed with these marvelous multihued polka dots. ''There's a dress that comes with it. The dress is supposed to arrive today. I'm calling them every day like, 'Has my dress come yeeet?'''

Candace Bushnell is lunching near her apartment on lower Fifth Avenue in New York City. The chef is a friend, the service is obsequious, and Candace -- everybody calls her Candace -- is washing down an $18 cheeseburger with sauvignon blanc. She is 44 years old and kinda tiny, and reminds you of one of those high school cheerleaders who dashed through the air in the basket toss and has landed at her 25th reunion to make all the wives envious.

If Candace were Carrie Bradshaw -- her alter ego on the HBO hit based on her ''Sex and the City'' columns in The New York Observer -- she would be sitting here gabbing about unrequited love or uncommitted sex. But Candace has been married for almost a year now, to 34-year-old ballet dancer Charles Askegard. If Candace were Janey Wilcox, the heroine of her forthcoming first novel, she wouldn't be here at all. In ''Trading Up,'' Janey favors a fictional joint called Dingo's, ''the place for lunch...full of intrigues and veiled threats and mini power plays.''

But on this bright May day, Washington Park is sedate. Except for the writer at a front table. At the moment, she's talking about last week's PEN literary gala. ''At those kinds of dinners, everyone's on their best behavior,'' she says, rolling her eyes with her whole body. ''I usually try to have fun wherever I go.'' It turns out she may have also had some problems with her fellow guests: ''Most of the books that the 'literary elite' think are great books of this day, I think are middlebrow nothingness.''

In 1634, the Bushnell boys sailed to the new world, and one of them married into a Mayflower family. In 1775, David Bushnell invented the combat submarine. In 1958, Calvin Bushnell, a rocket scientist, and his wife, Camille, welcomed Candace, the first of three girls, to Connecticut horse country. After high school, she went off to Rice University, took some writing courses, dropped out, and moved to Manhattan. ''I thought,'' Candace says, ''I could make money as an actress and I'd be able to support myself as a novelist, which of course is incredibly stupid.'' Instead, she modeled in punk fashion shows, then paid her dues at women's magazines. In 1994, she got a column at the Observer, a dishy broadsheet served to media types each Wednesday. Sex and the City, her collection of columns, came out two years later.

Candace isn't into sex, professionally speaking. Her books are more about mating rituals than actual mating, and the ribaldry of the TV show is not her doing. ''Trading Up'' features talk about intercourse as a transaction -- fellatio as a leveraging maneuver, say -- but no real action. Yet Hyperion, hoping to sell out its 250,000-copy first printing, has pitched it as a naughty little thing. ''Janey Wilcox wants to be on top,'' winks one line of promotional copy. ''Sex...without sensibility,'' nudges another. The author gets touchy on the subject: ''What book that's really literature has a lot of sex scenes in it?''

''Trading Up,'' due July 1, is a semisatirical page-turner of manners about Janey, a social climber equipped to scale the Empire State Building. She first appeared in Candace's 2000 novella collection ''4 Blondes'' as a foxy party girl with ill-defined literaryaspirations and a talent for sleeping her way into Hamptons summer homes. ''I actually wanted to end that with her being a call girl,'' Candace says, ''but I just felt, like, You know what? She deserves a break. So that was why I made her a lingerie model.'' With ''4 Blondes'' a best-seller -- roughly a million copies are in print -- Candace made a deal for two Janey Wilcox novels. ''When she first started writing,'' her Hyperion editor, Leigh Haber, says, ''she was thinking about having Janey be a spy.'' Candace's buddy Bret Easton Ellis can recall ''the time when she wanted Janey to be a cyborg.''

She ended up transposing a 19th-century plot to a world of silver Porsche convertibles and pink Chanel sunglasses, of media moguls and the status-hungry women who tolerate them. The standard charge against such characters is their superficiality. ''I'm not going to get irritated about this,'' Candace says irritatedly, ''because every great writer has had the same reputation. Edith Wharton was continually criticized for having characters who were shallow.... Janey is a classic situation of woman versus society. I mean, you might like Madame Bovary better than Janey Wilcox, but I don't.

''Look around,'' she continues. New York ''is a city where you see where you are on the food chain every day -- you can't help it. You see where you are by the way you're dressed and what table you get at a restaurant. It's not faaair, you know, who talks to you at parties. I used to go to parties and end up talking to some sweet guy in the corner but having a really interesting conversation. But there would be other people who only wanted to talk to the movers and shakers. You know, I'm personally not like that. I'm a writer.

''I still go to parties and take my little drink and skittle over to some corner and just look around. And sometimes I just laugh. Not in derision, just in the joy of watching human beings interact.''

Candace once told the online magazine Beatrice that ''one survival mechanism in New York is a deliberate unselfawareness which leads to an inability to be ashamed or embarrassed or humiliated.''

''Gosh, did I really say that?'' she asks upon hearing the quote. ''I have a lot of crazy theories.''

Doesn't she look good?'' says a woman from Tuleh.

''She always looks good,'' says her boss.

This Tuesday evening, Candace is wearing her new dress to a pre-opening party at Soho House New York, a new private club. The leather-padded elevator isn't working yet, so Candace troops up five flights of stairs in her unslung sling-back mules, past the spa and the screening room and a library that houses no books, to a dim room decorated in midcentury modern. Candace's husband -- who is tall and lean with an open Midwestern face -- is her guest. He escorts her through the moving, shaking crowd and past flocks of sleek young darlings. She air-kisses every friendly face on either cheek.

Candace runs into Grove/Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of her first two books, between the bar and the drawing room.

''This is great,'' Candace says. ''We're gonna spend so much time here!''

''Unfortunately,'' says Entrekin.

Later, twirling her purse and sipping her third drink -- ''I always say, champagne is like beer for girls!'' -- Candace mentions that she first met Entrekin at a dinner party in the '80s. They talked about children's books. In fact, back when she was new in town, Candace wrote one herself ''about this kid who turns into a TV -- and this was before cable -- and he gets 100 channels, but no one in his family notices.'' She pitched it to Simon & Schuster; they weren't buying. Would she take another shot at it? ''Wellll,'' Candace says, ''I always say, what I write now are children's books for adults, in a sense.''

Originally posted Jun 06, 2003 Published in issue #713 Jun 06, 2003 Order article reprints