How to be Single is the first novel of "Sex and the City" writer Liz Tuccillo, and it reads like a season of "Sex and the City". The ladies are slightly older this time, and they include Julie, a bored PR rep for a publishing company; Gloria, an angry recently abandoned mother of two; Serena, a gentle vegetarian chef; Ruby, a depressive mourning her cat; and Alice, a Legal Aid lawyer who has temporarily abandoned her calling to search for a mate, full-time.
All these women, with the exception of ascetic Serena, are desperate for a boyfriend. Desperate. Go out, hit on any man that moves, get drunk, dance topless on a bar desperate. End up in a hospital emergency room desperate. And it is in an emergency room where narrator Julie overhears elegant Frenchwomen slagging them off, en francais, for being typical American women, with no orgueil, pride.
Julie decides soon after to go around the world to find out how other women are Single. The novel flashes back and forth between Julie's round-the-world adventures and her friends' adventures back in New York City. As in "Sex and the City", there is a certain touristy obsession with France and, of course, sex. Because of the sexual content, in a sex club in France, in Julie's one-afternoon-stand with a near-stranger in Rio, and in various hiding places around Serena's ashram, this book is not suitable for unmarried readers and possibly not for married readers either, depending on the readers' disposition. If you're going to be haunted by explicit images of sweaty encounters with Brazilians who speak very little English, stay away. Oh, and given that both Serena and her swami lover have taken vows of celibacy, if you get crushes on priests and seminarians, most definitely you should not read this book.
PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD
For the most part, the women behave in self-defeating and yet jaw-droppingly selfish ways, which seem to be celebrated by the book and indeed the book has no redeeming messages in the first 200 pages, except the (French) idea of not showing your hurt and disappointment when a man loses interest in you. The book is absolutely obsessed with status, glamour and wealth. If the narrator speaks to a man, there is a good chance he owns an awful lot of real estate, has huge sums of money in his bank account, and is ready to lavish much expensive treats on whichever woman temporarily catches his eye.
It is interesting that the narrator (or author) can see the grasping nature of Chinese playgirls, but not her own obsession with the money and status of people she meets. When Julie's adventures take her to India, it should come to no surprise that the woman who picks her up at the airport is of the Brahman caste. The caste system makes Julie extremely uncomfortable despite the fact that she she has been partying with French, Italian, and Australian millionaire playboys, and her reaction to Balinese people trying to make a living through white tourists was, ultimately, to shout at them. The only poor men in the book, the Brazilians and the Balinese, are portrayed as good only for sex and incapable of fidelity.
However, there are glimmers of insight into how to be Single in ways that ordinary Christian women might recognize. Desperate Ruby turns again to the animal shelter for love, and becomes a volunteer, "The Sister Mary Prejean" of animals, being the last loving fact cats and dogs see before they are put down. In Mumbai, Julie tries to assuage her guilt and pangs of a broken heart though joining two British Indian women in giving beggar children one happy day at a fair. Sadly, these volunteer jobs are short-lived. Much more fruitful are encounters with close-knit families.
It is salutary to see that the sins of the women in the first half of the book are well and truly punished by the second half. Horrible Georgia starts to actually care about her children when her husband very justifiably tries to wrest custody from her angry, neglectful self. Adulterous Julie has a humiliating showdown with her French lover's wife. Ruby's seven thousand dollar experiments with self-insemination brings back flashbacks of her mother's misery as a poor single mother. Failed celibate Serena discovers that her swami lover has been sleeping with a whole lot of other women, women who don't mind sharing him. Alice fakes love for months in her attempts to settle and JUST GET MARRIED. Only by hitting absolute bottom do these women seem to get a grip on the fact that sex and/or selfishness and/or designer babies do not in themselves bring happiness.
But what does bring happiness? The narrator concludes, after all the women meet up for a therapeutic cry in the therapeutic hot springs of Iceland, that happiness can be found by LOVING YOURSELF. She more accurately thinks it can be found by letting go of one's failed dreams and being open to a different future. She might also have said that one should stop looking for happiness in the arms of men, and look for it in one's day-to-day activities, in one's friends and, especially, in one's family--either one's own or in a family one serves. Julie's trip to India, and ringside seat to contemporary Indian arranged marriages (of the highly-educated Brahmin caste), shines a light on how impoverished Americans (and other Westerners) have become by their rejection of the wider, multi-generational family, particularly their new assumption that decisions about sex and marriage have nothing to do with their families.
But completely missing from this book is any acknowledgement whatsoever of the God of Abraham. The only official religion portrayed in the book is Hinduism, I suppose because the author sees it as so sex-positive, except in the American branch to which Serena belongs. You would not know, from this book, that the Incarnation ever happened, or that there is a rich Western philosophy behind courtship, marriage, family and, indeed, Single life, from which we have profited for centuries.