Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Report: The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell

"Meet Carrie before Sex and the City." That's what it says on the cover of Candace Bushnell's The Carrie Diaries, a prequel to that other book that launched the popular HBO series of the same name. The idea interested me. After all, "Sex and the City" offered us little information about Carrie Bradshaw's background or her early days in the city, dispensing only small clues couched in glib one-liners such as, "I came to New York wearing Candie's," and "Sometimes I'd buy Vogue instead of dinner; I felt like it fed me more."

I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't what I found. The Carrie Diaries takes place during Carrie's senior year in high school in a small Connecticut town, and it's all about those staples of high school drama, namely cliques, crushes, hookups, and back-stabbing best friends. It seems geared toward thirteen year-olds (for all I know, maybe it is) and made me glad that high school is far behind me. Furthermore, some of the details don't match up with those in the TV series and the two subsequent movies. For example, it turns out that Carrie is the oldest of three girls. Her father is a doting scientist and her mother has passed away. Yet there's an episode of "Sex and the City" in which Carrie blames her problems with men on her dad who ran out on her (which makes a lot more sense than her having a nice dad and a normal middle class upbringing when you think about it). Also, the second Sex and the City movie features a flashback showing how Carrie met each of the other girls. She bumps into Charlotte first, on a subway, Miranda second, in a department store, and Samantha third, when Samantha's still a diamond-in-the-rough bartender. Yet in The Carrie Diaries Carrie is dropped off by her father in the city only to have her purse stolen (to Bushnell's credit, this does happen in the movie), and is forced to borrow change to call a friend's cousin -- who just happens to be Samantha, who is already a successful advertising executive. These are all subtle discrepancies, I know, but it's hard to believe in characters when their back stories flip-flop like that.

Still, even disappointing stories have redeeming qualities, and The Carrie Diaries is no different. I enjoyed the parts about Carrie becoming a fashionista and a writer. An edgy girl in a conservative town, she wears vintage white go-go boots the first day of school (much to the horror of her best friend) and reinvents a destroyed designer handbag left to her by her mother by painting her name all over it in pink nail polish. Always creative, Carrie has been dreaming up stories since elementary school, but it isn't until she meets college boy George (no, not that Boy George) that she realizes the value of the old adage "write what you know" and begins documenting her own experiences in her high school's newspaper. Finally, we catch a glimpse of Carrie's budding feminist outlook as she relays memories about her mother, who went back to college for her architecture degree after having children, and who always taught her daughters that feminism isn't about being anti-feminine, but about living the life that you want. I liked that part. Critics and viewers have always argued about whether or not "Sex and the City" sends a feminist message. As in, are these women falling into the old trap of being obsessed with their appearance and attracting men? Or, are these women bending the rules of society, refusing to be tied down by husbands and children to build careers and do their own thing? As someone who's always been in the latter camp, I thought this section of The Carrie Diaries tied in nicely with the way Carrie's adult life unravels.

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