The disappointment of second place at the Dionysiac festival might have been easier to bear had Sophocles known his Oedipus would eventually give credibility to a slew of neuroses and skew the literary canon forever. Even Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth would be lined up for a session on the couch. But he could never have imagined, while twiddling his stylus, that his version of the tragic hero would become the template for modern man.
Likewise, as she twizzled her olive pick in some uptown bar back in ‘97, Candace Bushnell probably had little idea she was about to unleash a myth just as potent, taxomizing female social relations for the next decade … and counting. You could no longer be the quiet one in a friendship group who wanted a boyfriend; you were Charlotte. You weren’t simply someone who liked their job; you were now Miranda. Even literary heroines were subjected, Elizabeth Bennett became a prototype Carrie; Bertha Mason, another Samantha (but still in the attic).
When it comes to female fiction, the comparison with Sex and the City is as difficult to avoid as a Delphic prophecy. Especially as Alexandra Shulman, respected UK Vogue editor for the last twenty years, now joins Bushnell among the ranks of journalists who thought that as they could make 1000 words on watermelon nail polish interesting, then a novel wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
Can We Still Be Friends keeps to a similar pattern to SATC as we follow a group of women — still friends despite their programmatically distinct personalities and aspirations — balancing love, work and life. Shulman unaffectedly catches the feel of mid-eighties London. For the girls, far-off miners’ strikes make as much impact as the new issue of The Face; bombs explode in central London, EastEnders airs and mobiles need suitcases.
It’s a shame that Shulman seems most comfortable inhabiting her least sparky characters, focusing on Annie who sleepwalks her way into marriage and Kendra who tries to negotiate her way between the demands of her do-gooder girlfriend (a Camilla Batmanghelidjh type but without the bulk or the bounce), and those of her exacting mother who could be a pop at Wintour. Shulman invests less in the Carrie of the group, Sal, a journalist meandering her way through a Fleet Street where women are a fractious minority. She’s the least soppy of the three, avoiding family
meltdowns with quips like “It’s all getting a bit Tennessee Williams.” But while Schulman informs us she was fun and funny before she tried to drink her deep-seated issues away, we’re frustratingly never shown enough of fun or funniness, nor the seating or unseating of her issues.
To Shulman’s credit, she never lurches into sentimentality and remains ironically aloof when it comes to certain characters’ redemptions and the tangled intricacies, rituals and self-obsession of female friendship.
What’s missing are the gags. SATC was more than just lush annals of desperation and a circus for product placement; it was a look at the thrust and the parry of female bonding. Miranda’s wishful thinking: “After years of odd men, God is throwing me a bone” would be brought back down to earth by Carrie’s: “And possibly a boner as well”.
Shulman is just too nice. The Vogue offices must be a haven of sweetness and delight but this novel needs more bark and more bite. Here, the devil is certainly not wearing Prada.
Can We Still Be Friends by Alexandra Shulman is published on 12 April