What Women Want: How two buzzy new books tackle female desire
If Candace Bushnell didn’t actually invent sex, she does deserve credit for a certain enduring idea of it: dizzy, liberated, cosmopolitan (and washed down, of course, with many cosmopolitans). Two-plus decades after Carrie Bradshaw & Co. became avatars of modern singledom, pop culture has inevitably evolved — though it’s not clear, in Bushnell’s latest, that the woman who created them has. The title of Is There Still Sex in the City? turns out to be very much a rhetorical question, one promptly answered in the jacket copy: This is Candace on “cubbing” (older women, millennial men), vaginal rejuvenation (it’s called the Mona Lisa; there be lasers), and Tinder (everybody hates it; everybody does it).
At 60, Bushnell’s voice still has the cigarette-tipped kittenishness of a sort of graying Holly Golightly — not that she would ever literally let her roots grow in. Acronyms are sprinkled over the text like cilantro: MAM is Middle-Aged Madness; MNB, My New Boyfriend; MILF hardly begs an explanation by now. But for every welcome moment of vulnerability — she addresses with unvarnished honesty all the ways that society tends to erase a woman over 50 without a partner — there are odd digressions that feel dragged too soon from the drafts folder: meandering thoughts on five-figure face creams, errant houseguests, and, perhaps inevitably, shopping for shoes. She dispenses with the end of her decade-long marriage in approximately a paragraph, which is less space than she allots to the death of her dog, and delivers tales of close friends’ misadventures as if they were cocktail-party anecdotes, not the genuine crises they often honestly seem to be. By the time she gets to her own cautiously optimistic ending, even a faithful reader couldn’t help but wonder: Isn’t there more to sex than this City?
If Bushnell’s take is presented as a sort of enhanced memoir, Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women reads like a nonfiction novel in the deeply embedded, richly detailed vein of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Taddeo, a Pushcart Prize-winning writer and journalist, spent eight years bringing her trio of subjects to the page in order to, as she writes in the introduction, “register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn.”
Her first study, a young North Dakota waitress named Maggie Wilken, is the only one without a pseudonym — and maybe not coincidentally, the one who ends up feeling most central to the narrative. Maggie isn’t anonymous, because her case is public record: In her early 20s, after years of depression and spiraling selfworth, she decided to sue her high school English teacher for initiating a sexual relationship that began when she was 17 and he was 29; the ensuing court battle made headlines across the state.
Indiana housewife Lina offers a much quieter if only nominally less compelling story: Wed to Ed, a mail carrier who has refused to kiss her beyond a dry peck for the duration of their 11-year marriage (“He’d never thrown her across a bed or whispered in her ear at a dinner party. He did not have that kind of charm.”), she reconnects with a first love on Facebook, setting into motion an affair that quickly keels toward full-blown obsession.
Sloane, a willowy, well-bred restaurateur in her early 40s, seems to live a world apart from the other two women, with her seaside bungalow and fresh bundles of kale. What is only whispered about in her privileged Rhode Island community is that her doting husband likes to watch her have sex with other people; in fact, he insists on it.
In another medium, these dilemmas could easily come off as a certain kind of erotic cliché, sensational filler for advice columns and daytime talk shows. It’s Taddeo’s deep, almost feverish commitment to detail and context that elevates the stories, making them feel not just painfully real but revelatory. In her efforts to explore “the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments,” she actually does much more: By peeling back the layers with such clear-eyed compassion, Taddeo illuminates the essential, elemental mystery of what it is to be a woman in the world.
Is There Still Sex in the City?: C+
Three Women: A-