Right on, sister

Four Blondes

Candace Bushnell <em>Abacus, 320pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 034911403X

I am a blonde myself but, thanks to this book, I'm seriously considering brunette lowlights. Four Blondes casts a less than flattering light on the flaxen - much less a fair one. While Sex and the City was a skilled and spare account of contemporary relationships, written with humour and humanity, FB is a generosity-free zone. If God is anywhere in this book, He is in the details: Four Blondes is a goldmine (as it were) of detail for the triviaholic and style hound - including everything from the hottest houses in the Hamptons (in Sagaponic, since you ask) to the ways movie producers avoid impregnating on the casting couch (you will have to look it up).

Otherwise, the eponymous four blondes are a fairly unsympathetic bunch: Janey is a model hellbent on holidaying in the Hamptons for free (she pays for it with sex); Winnie, a journalist, is an egomaniac control-freak who cheats on her husband; the Eurotrash Princess Cecelia has been spoilt into insanity; and "Grasshopper", the heroine of the fourth and final story, thinks she will have a better chance of finding a husband in London because all women there have flabby thighs. Right on, sister.

If its point is to subvert the prevailing cultural blonde stereotype - soft-voiced, breathy, fluffy - the book succeeds. There is nothing biddable about Bushnell's women - they highlight their hair the way a soldier straps on his rifle. Their relationships are bitter affairs, characterised by a lack of respect or affection. Yet the unrelenting misery of these bleak pairings seems just as unreal as the fiction of happy, shiny relationships that they appear designed to subvert.

But if Bushnell misses the satirical bull's-eye in this respect, she is bang on elsewhere. Janey's view of romance, for instance, is dictated entirely by the net worth of the individual concerned: "He wasn't a big man and he had (rather disconcertingly) skinny little legs but he had a barrel chest and his voice was deep and impressive. 'Being a successful movie producer is better than being president,' he said, twirling the tip of the cigar in his lips."

Winnie, a woman without a single compassionate bone in her body (and not much flesh, either), is a creation of virtuoso ghastliness. She is the book's professional blonde - educated, competitive and opinionated: "Sometimes she thinks there should be a test for dumbness while the baby is still in the womb, and all the dumb fetuses should be aborted. She knows what the argument against it would be: Who'll decide what dumb is? She has the answer: She would. She'd be happy to decide."

However, in another, more successful reversal of convention, each blonde gets what she wants in the end. Janey lands a million- dollar modelling contract, Winnie cheats on her husband with a film star, Princess Cecelia settles for her pampered Valley of the Dolls existence, while the cynical Grasshopper marries a rich man she meets on a plane. None of these bad, mad and downright unpleasant girls gets any kind of come-uppance (apart from, that is, the continued nightmare of being themselves). But perhaps of all the meticulously observed truths of Bushnell's knowing contemporary tableaux, that's the most profound of all.

Wendy Holden's latest novel, Pastures Nouveaux, is published by Headline (£10)

This article first appeared in Exclusive: how Labour could lose

2001-02-12