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In Candace Bushnell's new novel, "Lipstick Jungle," women wear the pants, pay the bills and compete with the big boys of corporate America. They're a far cry from the man-hunting heroines of Bushnell's "Sex and the City" they are not looking to be swept off their pedicured feet, nor are they content to be the proverbial woman behind every great man. In fact, more often than not, the XY chromosomes in Bushnell's jungle are depicted as spineless, useless or worse ridiculous.
"The women in this book have realized that you can't completely rely on men," said Bushnell, perched on a pink leather ottoman in her sun-drenched Greenwich Village apartment one recent afternoon. "Women have got to rely on themselves."
This sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves sentiment saturates "Lipstick Jungle" (Hyperion), which Bushnell calls her most feminist work to date. In it she writes, "Success and self-actualization was what really made women glow they shone with the fullness of life." Female characters strive to be billionaires, to own yachts, to be mistresses of the universe.
While the single 30-somethings in Bushnell's career-defining 1996 book, "Sex and the City," spent a significant part of their lives desperately seeking Mr. Right and the perfect pair of designer pumps, Nico O'Neilly, Victory Ford and Wendy Healy, the well-paid, insanely ambitious, 40-something principals in "Lipstick Jungle," haven't the time or the inclination to trifle with matters of the heart. They've got business to attend to.
As editor in chief of Bonfire magazine, Nico, a married mother of one, must navigate the piranha-infested waters of Splatch-Verner, a publishing conglomerate that bears more than a passing resemblance to Conde Nast. Wendy, a married mother of three, oversees Parador Pictures, a thriving Miramax-like movie studio, and Victory, a die- hard bachelorette and fashion designer, runs her own clothing company.
Bushnell, whose work has always been informed by the goings-on in her personal life, said that in recent years she and her friends were having conversations about more than men, Manolos and martinis. "When we get together, we're not really talking about sex and relationships," said Bushnell, who looks a decade younger than her 46 years. "We're talking about work and career."
The male characters in "Lipstick Jungle" pale in comparison to their female counterparts, and many are emasculated by Bushnell's alpha females. When one Splatch-Verner executive is abruptly fired, he begins to sob. A neglected stay-at-home husband, partial to Botox and spa trips, leaves his workaholic wife, but not before taking the kids and raiding the joint bank account. Nico ends her torrid affair with a Calvin Klein underwear model by giving him $5,000 to skedaddle quietly
"What I tried to do with the characters is put them in the same situation that powerful and successful men often find themselves," Bushnell said. "I'm fascinated by what it's like to be a woman in one of those powerful positions because there is really no road map about how you're supposed to behave. Just as society needs to re- evaluate our ideas about femininity and what women can do, we as women need to re-evaluate our ideas about it too."
Already, the novel has drawn mixed reviews. Publisher's Weekly predicts that Bushnell's tale will "keep readers turning pages." The Daily News of New York, meanwhile, said: "She's not quite up to the job of preaching female empowerment without sounding as if she's uncorked some vintage whine."
Bushnell, who speaks in winding, animated sentences, said she was not encouraging women to burn their La Perla bras. "It's really about the struggle for self-actualization, the struggle to believe in yourself against the odds of what society tells women," she said.
It has been more than a decade since Bushnell began writing her "Sex and the City" column for The New York Observer.
Dressed in a cranberry-colored Oscar de la Renta skirt, a silk blouse and Christian Dior heels, Bushnell recalled the years when life was not so grand, when she slept on a pull-out couch in a cramped apartment on the Upper East Side. "I was struggling for money, struggling to be taken seriously," she said.
At 26, Bushnell said she was the "quintessential confused 20- something trying to keep my head above water." At 36, she was Carrie Bradshaw. "I had all of those adventures," she said. "But I was still hedging my bets. 'Maybe Mr. Right will come along and save me.' I couldn't let go of that idea."
Even after she found success and financial stability once her Observer columns were made into a book and then a hit HBO series, Bushnell said she still felt a void. "I remember when I got the first copies of 'Sex and the City,'" she said, "and I was all alone, crying."
They were not tears of joy. "Mr. Big had just dumped me for someone else," she said. "Finally I had achieved my lifelong dream and all I could think is, 'There's no one to share this with.'"
After decades of dating such boldface names as Gordon Parks, Bob Guccione Jr. and Ronald Galotti (the former magazine publisher and the real-life Mr. Big), she is now married to Charles Askegard, a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet.
Askegard is a decade younger than his wife. While he wears the tights in the family, Bushnell said neither she nor her husband wear the pants.
"I think that we both feel like we're really equal and we're really partners," she said. The only pitter-patter of little feet in her home come from Betsey, her black Labrador.
"If it's right for you to have kids, you will have kids," said Bushnell. "I don't think it's right to say to a woman that you have to have kids to feel fulfilled."
Bushnell said she would like women to walk away from her book feeling both inspired and aware that life doesn't end after 35. "So much can and will happen to you in your 40s," she said. "All of it may not be good. Some of it is probably going to be bad, but some of it may also be really great."
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