Now, here's something I didn't know and wouldn't have guessed - Carrie Bradshaw and I are about the same age. Maybe she was a senior when I was in tenth grade. But still. Jimmy Carter was President when she was in high school; her friend drives a Gremlin; they sing along to the B-52s in the car. Preppy style has not yet hit in its full force, but she lives in Connecticut, and there are girls who dress like that already. Naturally, she hates them.
I wouldn't have guessed that Carrie and I were the same age, because the Carrie I know is the Carrie of the TV show - I know SJP clacking around New York City in absurd outfits. That show was on from 1998 to 2004, during which time Carrie should have aged from about 34 to 40. I lived in NYC during most of that time too. I spent those years getting divorced, getting remarried, getting a graduate degree, and getting pregnant - twice. Carrie spent those years drinking sweetened martinis and frenching people like Alanis Morissette and Mikhail Baryshnikov. No wonder I thought she was 28.
So, The Carrie Diaries is Carrie's teenage story. Before New York City, before Big, before lascivious Samantha, disciplined Miranda, and conservative Charlotte. Before she started frenching celebrities. In some ways, Carrie in Connecticut is a much more well-rounded girl. She's on the swim team and has won medals for diving. She's a competent cook. She's good at math! She drinks and smokes too much, but she is still a virgin, and after all, this is pre-1984 - the drinking age is still 18.
Carrie has been raised a feminist - her stunning, sophisticated mother gave up housewifery to become an architect when Carrie was small, and exemplified for her daughters (Carrie is the oldest of three girls) a kind of classy, competent entitlement before tragically dying some short time before this book begins. She left Carrie a Hermès scarf and a good bag and the misapprehension that discrimination based on gender was a thing of the past.
I remember this. I remember assuming, as a child, that gender parity had been achieved. We were the first batch of girls raised post-Pill, raised on Hot Lips Houlihan and Rhoda Morgenstern and Erica Jong, and we were told - relentlessly told - that we could be anything. We were all supposed to grow up to be astronauts or attorneys. My rude awakening didn't come til after college, when I realized that the insurance company where I had washed up was 100% female, except for management, which was 100% male. (Except for the programmers - the programmers, always early adopters, were almost evenly split.)
Carrie runs up against it her senior year, once she begins dating the best-looking boy in school, a wealthy Heath Ledger type with a mysterious past and a yellow Corvette. At first, she is flattered when he tells her she's 'not like other girls,' charmed when he begs her to blow off swim practice to be with him. Gradually, however, she notices that he doesn't pay attention to what she says. Her questioning conversational style irritates him. He flirts with her best friend, driving a wedge between them. It all adds up to a fundamental and profound lack of respect for her.
But hell, when I was in high school I would've gone out with friggin Benny Hill if he'd been driving a yellow Corvette. Probably would've worn a naughty nurse outfit for him too if that's what it took. We all make decisions.
Anyway, here is where I think this book, which, although reportedly written for a teen audience, really does spend a lot of time with memoir-y material that is absolutely irrelevant to today's teen reader, finds its footing. A confident, intelligent girl falls in love with a boy who does not respect her, but whose actions could be explained in a variety of ways. This still happens. Is he holding back emotionally because he is secretly insecure? Or because he secretly kind of hates her for being independent? Does he keep forgetting the subject of her article for the school paper because he's distracted by his desire for her? Or because he couldn't care less?
A girl could get paranoid, that's a fact. But today's girls, who will never be told by the school newspaper editor that cafeteria food is a more relevant topic for an article than the controversy surrounding cheerleader tryouts because "No one is interested in that boring girl talk," do still need to learn how to recognize The Disrespectful Boyfriend. And if they spot him, they need to know how to stand up for themselves and, not to put to fine a point on it, call a douche a douche.
In typical Carrie fashion, however, everything needs to fall completely apart before she will pick herself up and write her way back to her usual squinty optimistic demeanor. Sometimes you would have to watch Sex and the City with one hand over your eyes, waiting for one of Carrie's dumber decisions to blow up in her face.
The last sentence in the novel - may I say - is unbelievably satisfying.
Ok, those are the things I liked about the novel. There were also things I did not like.
I did not like Ms. Bushnell's lackluster writing style. I expected laughs, I have to admit. I at least expected lots of fabulously awful and probably just-about-to-come-back-into-style fashion (boy did I love colored pantyhose back then). But we are living in Connecticut here, and the prose seems to reflect the lifeless winter fields that surround Carrie's Hartford suburb.
I also thought that there was both too much 1981 and not enough. Some of the attitudes and social mores in this book, while historically accurate, I thought would read like historical fiction to today's teens. And there were things about 1981 that totally rocked. Music, for example, was deep in the phase I think of as Cheese Rock - Eddie Money, Supertramp, ELO - who are rightly not well-known to today's young woman, but who does not know Journey? The reference to the B-52s notwithstanding, Carrie is crazy about Aztec Two-Step. Eeeyuck. The novel is on the whole, too much Juice Newton and not enough Pat Benatar.
I did not like the way Candace Bushnell humiliates Carrie. I know, I know, it's a staple of the character - the tutu is just a vaguely infantile fashion choice until it gets splashed with mud, at which point it becomes a symbol of Carrie's optimism and pathos - but in The Carrie Diaries Carrie falls down no fewer than eight times. Generally in front of a large group of people. Falls off chairs, falls over the back of a sofa, runs into things and knocks herself over.
I fail to see the point in this. If Carrie is meant to be a more believable character because she is clumsy, she would be dropping things, and not just falling over. It's not like she is attempting physical feats for which she is underqualified, and we are to admire her for trying and failing. She's just tilting back in her chair - she's an athlete for Pete's sake, she can manage a chair. And if we are supposed to feel empathy because yeah sometimes embarrassing things happen to me too - well, I fell off a sofa once when I was making out with a boy, but I did not fall down eight times my senior year of high school.
Lastly, when a fictional girl finds herself dating a dirtbag - and it's a staple of young adult fiction - the fun part of the novel, as opposed to the agonizing part, during which the reader knows he's a dirtbag but the protagonist does not, is the part where the girl gets a little of hers back. Holy crap, Frankie Landau-Banks tore her whole school a new one when it happened to her. Carrie does not - she takes the high road, and where's the fun in that? She understands that her future is her revenge:
"See those girls?" I indicate the Jens with my head. "Do you think they're pretty?"
"The two Jens? They're beautiful."
"Now," I say. "They're beautiful now. But in two years --"
"They're going to look really, really old. They're going to look like they're forty," The Mouse says.
Little Gayle covers her mouth. "Why? What happened to them?"
"They're going to peak in high school," I explain.
"That's right," The Mouse agrees, nodding. "And after high school, it's all downhill. Babies. Cheating husbands. Dead-end jobs. You don't want to peak in high school. If you do, the rest of your life is a disaster."
Well, not to worry. Carrie definitely doesn't peak in high school.