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Killing Monica


Killing Monica

It is Candace Bushnell’s fate --- or her good fortune? --- to find SEX AND THE CITY rising like the Manhattan skyline behind every subsequent book she has written.

Her new novel, KILLING MONICA, seems consciously to embrace autobiography. Its protagonist, writer PJ Wallis (Pandamonia James, known as Pandy), has created a madcap, fashion- and status-obsessed New York single woman named Monica (aka Carrie Bradshaw?). The actress who stars in the film adaptations has three names, SondraBeth Schnowzer (Sarah Jessica Parker, anyone?). It’s not clear, though, if Bushnell, like Pandy, feels a victim of her own success, ready to risk a more serious sort of fiction. Certainly this book doesn’t break with her previous work, including the iconic SATC columns for the New York Observer that were collected into a book, turned into a TV series…and the rest is pop-culture history. (She has since written several adult novels and a couple of young adult SATC prequels.)

KILLING MONICA begins with two significant events: Pandy has produced an “un-Monica” novel that her agent is trying to sell, and she is about to be divorced at a very high price (no prenup: big mistake) from Jonny, her double-dealing restaurateur husband. She throws a party for her girlfriends (no competition for Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, sadly; to me they seemed pretty interchangeable), complete with “‘champagne in the bathtub, cupcakes in the kitchen, cigarettes in the living room…’” They drink. They dish. And the morning after, at one of lower Manhattan’s posh rooftop pools (Bushnell is at her best when depicting the rich and/or famous at play), Pandy gets the disappointing news that publishers aren’t buying her new book. Which means she can’t pay Jonny off unless she churns out another Monica novel.

"This could be a transitional novel for Bushnell. Maybe in order to write a book that departs from sex and shopping in Manhattan, she had to test the waters with a self-referential tale of double lives and tarnished values."

Flashback to nine years earlier: Pandy has written the first in the series and is in LA trying to find the right actress to play Monica (an opportunity for Bushnell to channel the show-biz zeitgeist, savage and narcissistic and dizzily luxe). Then she spots a model on a billboard who seems perfect. SondraBeth Schnowzer --- originally from Montana, with a hardscrabble background that included a brief turn as a stripper --- wins the part and moves to New York. She and Pandy bond, calling each other by pet names (“sista,” “Peege,” “Squeege,” “PandaBeth”); Bushnell gives their friendship a vague homoerotic undercurrent. They become BFFs --- except it isn’t for forever.

After some colorful adventures in clubs and resorts (more chances for Bushnell to display insider details on how the other half lives), they fall out over a guy. And not just any guy, a movie star: People’s Sexiest Man Alive. SondraBeth thinks it’s fine to share him. Pandy is “not that kind of girl.” She’s more the marrying kind, as she promptly demonstrates with Jonny --- who goes from soul mate to philandering, money-grubbing bastard in record time. Couples counseling doesn’t help; the therapist-recommended visit to Pandy’s magnificent if ramshackle family home in Wallis, Connecticut, is a fiasco.

Yet this strand of the story --- a sort of novel within the novel --- is darker and more intriguing than the flashier parts of KILLING MONICA. Pandy’s background is described in rich detail: her childhood, when she and her sister, Hellenor, were shunned as weird, nerdish kids; the death of their parents in a car crash when she was 20; the mansion they inherited (“a rare, once-famous Italianate Victorian built on the top of a two-hundred-acre mountain,” surrounded by “ancient maple trees,” tennis court, marble pool, theater, carriage house and boathouse). Inside the house are chandeliers and Aubusson carpets and ancestral portraits, including one by Gainsborough of Lady Wallis Wallis, an 18th-century beauty who was also a writer and a spy for the patriots during the American Revolution. (Bushnell herself is descended from Connecticut settlers dating back to 1639.) Lady Wallis, it turns out, is the subject of Pandy’s unsold historical novel, her bid for liberation from her own creation.

For Monica has turned into a monster, a 24/7 publicity juggernaut. I couldn’t help rooting for Pandy and SondraBeth --- nice women corrupted by fame --- to escape her clutches. The climax of the book features a string of surreal events (plausibility is not KILLING MONICA’s strong point), including a fire, a case of mistaken identity, a revenge scheme, and finally, an episode where the two friends disguise themselves in, respectively, Mother Teresa rags and a burka. I’m not telling what happens at the end, except to say that there’s a plot twist that took me by surprise.

This novel, with its pink-and-black Chick Lit cover, has all the earmarks of a beach book, and certainly it reads with ease and occasional wit. But the writing, in my opinion, leaves something to be desired. Women “bleat,” “scream,” “demand” and “screech,” making them seem downright hysterical (what’s wrong with says and said?). Clothes are described in catalogue-speak (Pandy gets married in “a chic white lace suit with three-quarter-length sleeves and gorgeous white patent leather Mary Jane shoes”). Even the perfectly laudable feminist sentiments that glint through the narrative like so many golden threads seem awfully clichéd (“[E]very woman’s happy ending doesn’t have to be the same. And it doesn’t have to involve a man”; and later, “[T]here are some things that matter more than a man… And those things are friendship --- and being true to yourself”). Compare these to, say, the cool ironies of “Girls” (though, to be fair, Lena Dunham herself has described SATC as a major inspiration for the series; they are both, of course, HBO productions).

This could be a transitional novel for Bushnell. Maybe in order to write a book that departs from sex and shopping in Manhattan, she had to test the waters with a self-referential tale of double lives and tarnished values. And perhaps now she is free to try something completely different. If you do have an interesting ancestress, Candace, please consider getting out of town and telling her story.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on June 26, 2015

Killing Monica
by Candace Bushnell

  • Publication Date: June 21, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446557919
  • ISBN-13: 9780446557917