As Carrie Bradshaw might ask: “Is it possible to look at the modern world through the lens of Sex and the City, a TV show based on a newspaper column about single life that first aired in 1998? Or are we just kidding ourselves?” Bushnell’s premise here is to ask what there is left for women like her – newly single in their 50s – in terms of dating and sex. It’s meant to be a reboot: Carrie (the columnist played by Sarah Jessica Parker), 20 years on, only the real-life version.
Except it’s not. This book is not quite what it seems. And that turns out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s Candace Bushnell’s meditation on what happens when life takes a wrong turn for her and her group of girlfriends. It’s bittersweet, amusing and well observed. It starts out being about sex and dating but really it’s about disappointment, regret and self-acceptance. There is very little sex in this book (or in the lives of the fiftysomething single women depicted), but there is a lot of chat among seemingly wealthy women about not having enough money as they approach a retirement that will probably never arrive; about feeling lonely and friendless; about struggling with envy for the lives of others; and about coming to terms with the cruelty of the ageing process. Fun times, guys!
You get the impression that Bushnell would have been happy writing this as a memoir in the vein of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. But, instead, it is marketed as being about “cubs” (attractive young men) and “cougars” (attractive older women). It isn’t really. Yes, for parts of Is There Still Sex in the City?, Bushnell mines “social phenomena” (only relevant to the sort of people who get annoyed that they don’t have a big enough swimming pool) and drops the sort of meaningless buzzwords that peppered 90s women’s magazine journalism (“bicycle boys”, “super middles”). But what was clever about Bushnell’s original columns, and the TV series, was that it purported to be about sex and society but was actually about female friendship – and about the impossibility of leading the life you dream of when you’re young.
Thankfully, this book mostly reflects those strengths. So the passages on Tinder, for example, are blessedly short and depressing: she discovers that things are exactly as she was warned. On Tinder people are flaky, short-termist, neurotic and self-obsessed. And you spend more time scrolling and waiting for messages than you do having sex. (She gets zero sex through Tinder.)
The passages that are longer and much more interesting cover the sort of territory where Bushnell excels. Why do some people become obsessed with cycling when they get older? Can you actually be friends with those people? Why do women who have been friends for 40 years suddenly have catfights like 12-year-olds? And what are you supposed to do when your ex-boyfriend’s estranged eight-year-old comes to stay with you and doesn’t know how to tell his dad that he can’t ride a bike?
I found this side to Bushnell refreshing and compelling. She wrote Is There Still Sex in the City? when, in the aftermath of a divorce, she was refused a new mortgage because of her age. (She turned 60 last year and was married for 10 years.) The “sexy dating” is a red herring, as we can tell when she finally gets a boyfriend. He is 75 and looking for companionship. This is a book about whether we can accept who we are when things don’t turn out how we wanted them to.
The moments when it takes off are when we feel as if we’re getting close to who Bushnell really is: the woman who says she will do anything for a man but whose friends always come first, who can get ripped off by a beautician to the tune of $4,000 and who does not walk out on a date when a man stands in front of his bed and says: “I’ve had a lot of great sex on that bed. And I hope to have a lot more in the future.” That is a flawed and potentially interesting woman. If you can look past the MAM (Mid-Aged Madness) and MNBs (My New Boyfriends), it’s fun getting to know her.
• Is There Still Sex in the City? by Candace Bushnell is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99