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The perils of being an ‘old coot’ in a world of Tinder: Lynn Barber on Candace Bushnell's return to Sex and the City

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Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City, based on Candace Bushnell's columns for the New York Observer
Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City, based on Candace Bushnell's columns for the New York Observer Credit: Sportsphoto/Allstar

Lynn Barber reviews Is There Still Sex in the City? by Candace Bushnell 

Sex and the City, based on a column Candace Bushnell wrote for the New York Observer, was a huge success on television from l998 to 2004. I was never a fan: I felt the characters were far too old to be carrying on the way they were, obsessing about shoes and boyfriends. But, crikey, they’re so much older in this follow-up – Candace Bushnell turns 60 at the end of the book.

It starts with Bushnell’s decision to leave Manhattan - her mother dies, her dog dies, her husband wants a divorce, and she is not allowed to take over the mortgage of their apartment, even though she has plenty of money, because she is now a divorced middle-aged woman. So she bunks off to her country cottage in Connecticut and writes three books which are all rejected. Her friend tells her it is because she is suffering from MAM – middle-aged madness – the first of many irritating acronyms in the book. So then she moves back to New York, and wonders: is there still sex in the city?

Her first date is with her gynaecologist who tells her she needs to sign up for the Mona Lisa treatment, “a new laser treatment that restores thickness and elasticity to the vagina”. Apparently it has much the same effect as Viagra does on middle-aged men, i.e. it rekindles sexual desire. The difference is that whereas Viagra only costs a few bucks, the Mona Lisa treatment costs $3,000 (£2,473), and Bushnell sensibly declines. On the other hand, she does spend $4,000 on face cream, which she reckons is only twice as much as she spends on fillers and Botox.

Then she is commissioned to write an article on online dating and joins Tinder. This is by far the best chapter in the book, perhaps because it was commissioned as an article, and therefore involves some research instead of just navel-gazing. None of her contemporaries use Tinder, but everyone warns her that it was designed by men as “a hookup app where women met guys, gave them blow jobs, and never saw them again”. Moreover, it costs money to join and she has to sign up for life.

Candace Bushnell at a New York bar in the mid-Nineties Credit: LIFE images collection/Ken Schles

Worse, she discovers that Tinder has somehow connected to her Instagram account and printed her real name along with some old photos taken when she was years younger. So she is already a “false advertiser” like almost everyone on Tinder who makes out that they are younger and better looking than they are IRL (in real life).

And Tinder also knows her real age and at first assumes that she wants to meet men aged 55 to 75, and sends her photos of men in their 60s, which she rejects – “Being an old coot myself I really didn’t want to hook up with another old coot.” She manages to reset the desired age range to between 22 and 38, and is suddenly bombarded with photographs of attractive-looking young men. At first she is pleased, but, like everyone on Tinder, she gets picky, and when she eventually makes a date the man stands her up.

She convenes a group of much younger women to ask about their Tinder experiences. Basically, they are all bad – “If you’re just not a psycho-killer you’re like the coolest.” They ask wistfully what dating was like when she was young, and she says that usually you’d meet a guy you liked at a party and exchange phone numbers and hopefully he’d ring and ask you on a date and “You’d go to dinner. And you’d talk. You’d discuss things. And then if it was a nice night or if it was snowing, you might go for a walk in the park… It’s so corny,” she apologises.

But the younger women are all squealing with envy. One of them says that she too once went for a walk in the park with a boy and “It’s the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to me, ever.” But nowadays they are stuck with online dating because there are no alternatives. Even singles bars are no use any more because “Guys don’t look at you in a bar. There’s very little interaction in real life.”

Meanwhile Bushnell’s friends in the country (she also has a house in the Hamptons) are going in for “boy-cubbing” and she wonders “Are middle-aged women now catnip for younger men?” These boys are so young that the main danger seems to be that you might know their parents – but worse is to come. One of them tries a spot of blackmail, saying that he is under-age and was wickedly lured into drinking and sex. Bushnell believes that “The future of cubbing is wide open”, but it doesn’t sound too promising.

What about SAPS – senior-age players? She meets one called Arnold at a party and he asks her out. He is rich and powerful but – eek! – he is 75 and “What if he fell down? I didn’t spend my life working this hard to end up taking care of a strange old person.” She does finally consent to have dinner with him but reels back in horror when he tells her that he is looking for companionship. “Of all the micro- and macro-aggressions of ageing, the worst one is when you discover you’ve crossed the bridge from wanting a relationship, with all that entails, to having to settle for its lesser cousin: companionship.”

Candace Bushnell's Is There Still Sex in the City? is available now Credit: Little, Brown

By the end of the book she has triumphantly acquired a MNB (my new boyfriend) who might eventually turn into a MNH (my new husband) and is “creating a family-adjacent scenario in which my two dogs, Pepper and Prancer, were sort of our kids.” Kind of like companionship.

Is this book meant to be funny? I’m honestly not sure. Bushnell has a gift for snappy phrasemaking but snappy tends to be the apposite word. And the relentless obsession with age, money, status is plain depressing. Moreover, Bushnell’s claim that she and her friends are “always there for each other” is rather given the lie when one of them take their own life. Maybe “there” is not enough.

So who, if anyone, will find this book cheering? I scratched my head for a while then suddenly realised – smug marrieds of course. They can read it and think that, however boring they find their husbands, however onerous the child care, they can thank their lucky stars they don’t have to emulate Candace Bushnell. But that still doesn’t seem a good enough reason for reading her.

Is There Still Sex in the City? is published by Little, Brown at £16.99