October 2003

Veronica Bond

fiction

Trading Up by Candace Bushnell

There is a part in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in which Francie, the protagonist, is composing stories for school. She writes about poverty and illness, because those are the things she faces in her life, but when she hands in her pieces she is told that they are not beautiful and are not true because they are not happy. In effort to please her teacher, Francie goes home and begins composing a story in which a young girl is surrounded by money and food and has servants at her every beck and call, the complete opposite of anything she has ever known. She eventually realizes the error of her teacher and burns her latter writings, but had she continued her story of the disgustingly rich, ungrateful little girl, I imagine it would have turned out much like Candace Bushnell's Trading Up.

Trading Up centers around the adventures of Janey Wilcox, a Victoria's Secret model and up and coming New York socialite. From the beginning Janey is determined to get ahead in the scene, practically dying of joy when she receives an invitation to one of Mimi Kilroy's infamous parties. Janey and Mimi, who has been at the top of New York's elite since childhood, form a friendship based on their mutual love of money, attention, and sex. It is at this party that Janey is introduced to Seldon Rose, in whom she has no interest save for his money and power. Predictably, Janey and Seldon marry just a few months later, despite Janey never feeling any sincere amount of love for him - "…since their marriage, there were times when she found herself despising her husband with a level of hatred she'd never felt for any man before. She was stuck with him and his flaws, like the way it seemed to take him forever to get out of the house, because he always had to check for his keys and wallet three times, and the way he would stop in the middle of the street to talk on his cell phone, making her stand there for sometimes five minutes or more, and when she opened her mouth to protest he would rudely hold up his hand. Or that belly he was developing and his flat, sagging ass, and his penis - it was a perfectly normal size, but why couldn't it have been just a bit bigger? And the problem was that he had taken away her possibilities. When she was thinking these black thoughts, she wondered why she hadn't aimed higher.

A younger, yet identical, version of Janey is revealed in flash back scenes. Even then she was set on escaping her so-called upper middle class oppression, going off to Paris to be a model and eventually ending up as a concubine on a wealthy Arab criminal's yacht - "No matter how many times she'd been warned about the dangers of wanting things, in her mind, they were achievements. They were like a magical duty of some kind, paid to those whom God or fate mysteriously chose to honor, and it seemed that one had hardly to do anything to receive them…Standing before the full-length mirror, Janey slipped the jacket over her T-shirt and pulled up the collar. With the fur close to her face, she no longer looked like the pretty American student studying abroad. She was suddenly transformed into a stunningly beautiful young woman for whom anything in the world seemed possible…And as she turned from side to side, falling in love with her reflection, she thought, Yes, she coveted. But the difference was that now she saw that she could have. And somehow, she would have, very, very soon."

The flashbacks work to show Janey's determination to scale the societal ladder, regardless of the prices she must pay in body and dignity, a trait she carries with her throughout adulthood. A scandal involving an unwritten screenplay ensues, causing irreparable damage to Janey's public image, and her relationships with both Seldon and Mimi begin to deteriorate as a result of the manner in which she chooses to deal with the situation, namely with sex. Janey's foremost concern is herself, not caring a bit about those whom her actions may have hurt. She is the eternal five-year-old child.

The moral of the story is: Never take responsibility for anything that you can pin on someone else. That and there can never be too much money nor can your standards be too low. And, it doesn't matter how many people you squash to get to the top, all that matters is that you get there. I could go on with the clichés because that's all this book is - one big, "women are dumb, want to be beautiful, and will marry any man if he is rich and powerful enough" cliché. Sexual references - nipple clamps, a lipstick shade of "Pussy Pink" - are scattered throughout, meaning to entice, but falling flat, as their use as elements of shock is entirely obvious. Likewise, names and titles, such as the production company "Splatch Verner," Seldon's novelist friend "Craig Edgers," and Edgers's novel, "The Embarrassments," fall just a bit too close in line with reality so that, instead of sounding edgy or ironic, they show a lack of creativity on Bushnell's part.

My question is, what is the point of reading a story in which the characters never change and everything that happens only serves to deepen the reader's hatred of them? If Bushnell were going for the "hate her so much you love her" effect, she missed her mark entirely and ended up firmly entrenched on the side of hate. I can't imagine she intended her readers loathe Janey, but there is no way to sympathize with her, either. Janey's only concern with her sister's marital troubles is how she might use the situation to her advantage, she is distraught when Mimi's extra-marital lover refuses her own advances, and she never once considers using her own money to rid herself of the screenplay debacle. Janey is smug and feels entitled, always twisting the facts so that she is the victim. Never once during the entire story does she, or any of the other characters, undergo a modicum of transformation. Instead of a story about anything true, Trading Up is nothing more than a collection of wants, resulting in an uninteresting and ultimately transparent read.

Trading Up by Candace Bushnell
Hyperion
ISBN: 078686818X
404 pages