Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Sour Book Review: “The Assistants”

I finally sat down this weekend to finish “The Assistants” by Camille Perry, a novel that has been languishing in my Kindle for months now. It turned out to be a disappointing experience. It started off well, deploying my favorite plot device, “The Irreversible Bad Decision,” within the first few pages. But by the end, I found myself disgusted and fed up with all of the characters, and perhaps unfairly, with the author.

“The Assistants” centers around the harried Tina Fontana, a personal assistant to famous media mogul Robert Barlow. Tina lives paycheck to paycheck in a run-down Manhattan apartment, and spends her days fretting about money and intuiting Robert’s every need. She’s a highly competent assistant, and Robert, although he's  a bit clueless in the way that the out-this-stratosphere wealthy can be, treats Tina with a fatherly benevolence. All in all, they seem to have a fond and respectful working relationship. However, Tina is also preoccupied with what she sees as an unfair wealth disparity between her and her one-percenter boss, and in a moment of weakness, she embezzles a large enough sum of money from his company to pay off her massive student loan debt. This sets off the predictable “hilarious” chain reaction that most Irreversible Bad Decisions do, and before long, the other personal assistants at the company want in on the action. This launches Tina into a criminal enterprise in fraud that she has a hard time outrunning, even when she tries to transform it into a legitimate business.

There’s nothing I love more than a good dose of moral ambiguity in fiction. I enjoy reading about prideful, wicked, frustrating characters who make bad choices, screw up, and take a long time to learn their lesson. I don’t necessarily even need a redemption narrative. But I found Tina’s behavior and mindset throughout the entire novel to be appalling. She comes across as entitled, weak, self-righteous and materialistic, yet somehow as the reader, I was supposed to be convinced that she was on some heroic journey of personal growth and feminist self-actualization. What Tina was actually doing was refusing to take responsibility for her actions, and dragging a lot of people who shared her entitled mindset down a criminal path.

But what upset me more than her crimes was her sense of victimhood. She constantly compares Robert’s lavish expenditures to her own tightly budgeted existence, sniffing about how what he spends on a weekend in the Hampton’s is three month’s salary for her, or obsessing over his pricey wine and meals. This sense of injustice is a thread woven throughout the entire book, and Tina uses the “it’s a huge company and they won’t even miss the money” excuse as a justification for her actions. Yet until she starts trying to launch a business with her ill-found gains, she never once makes any attempt to move up the career ladder, beef up her skills, ask for a raise, or do anything at all to improve her lot in life. Despite being well-educated and experienced, she is moored in the mindset that she and her fellow assistants (every single one of whom is female), are hopelessly trapped in their roles and completely lacking in personal agency. There was nothing at all stopping Tina from asking her boss for a raise or an introduction to someone who could help her move up, or from networking, or from exploring other options. But the conceit the author seems to want her readers to swallow is that The Big Evil Corporation is running a sweatshop full of oppressed, put-upon, underpaid female assistants who are drowning in debt and have no viable options. I don’t know about the rest of them, but Tina was smart and resourceful. She didn’t have to be a victim.

When Tina eventually turns completely to the dark side and blackmails Robert, it’s portrayed as some grand moment of feminist empowerment. To me, it just seemed desperate, sad and irresponsible. I had no sense of rah-rah you-go-girl whoopiness about it, and in fact, I felt a little bit of shame for her.

It’s entirely possible that I just don’t understand or can’t relate because the book’s intended audience is too far out of my age demographic. Or maybe I’m extrapolating way too much from it. But my patience for such narratives has worn thin, and I’m crabby about the fact that my precious personal time was spent reading a book that just left me irritated. I wish I had better things to say about it, but I feel like I was  proselytized to for 300 pages about the ravages of student debt, and that’s not a fun time for me. I struggled paycheck to paycheck until my mid-thirties, but I still managed to pay off my student loans the legal way.

Alrighty. Let’s get out of here on a cheerier note. Since we’re on college and debt and age gaps, here’s a little funny from College Humor:

--Kristen McHenry

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