Candace Bushnell, the author of Sex and the City and a former in-the-know columnist for the revoltingly in-the-know New York Observer, now offers a grimmer, fictional portrait of rich, beautiful, and powerful Manhattanites in their social, professional, and, above all, sexual lives. The four blondes of the title are the sort who would be welcome in the VIP rooms of downtown clubs, and Bushnell tells their stories in self-contained chapters: the book is essentially a collection of four novellas. It’s aimed at those for whom this scene exercises a cheap fascination, and its effect is not at all unlike that of pornography: the reader is titillated and even encouraged to feel “daring,” but in the end is left empty and somewhat depressed. At times Four Blondes reads like a bitter satire, and Bushnell scores some trenchant hits — as when, for instance, she summarizes the vacuous ambitions of a journalistic Manhattan couple: “If James had written an important, influential book by now, they would have access to more important, influential people. They would be more important, influential people.” Her depiction of Janey, a model and would-be screenwriter (naturally), who regularly endures a painful and humiliating sex act to please her producer boyfriend (with whom she is pathetically in love, but whom she also sees as a vehicle to satisfy her ambition), is as nuanced as it is desolate. But Bushnell’s hard voice too often turns gushy; ultimately, she’s infatuated with this world, and therefore glamorizes it. Her bleak and dispiriting comedy of manners is enough to make you a puritan.