The Partner Track by Helen Wan

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I hated being singled out for reasons I’d had nothing to do with. As long as I could remember, high-er-ups—not just bosses but teachers, professors, deans, recruiters, and HR directors—were forever asking me to serve on this committee, come to that reception, be a mentor, speak on a panel. I didn’t flatter myself by thinking that because I was pos-sessed of such wit and charm, such keen legal acumen, my absence was unthinkable. I knew the rule: When you find an attractive, articulate minority woman in your midst, who’s neither too strident nor too soft-spoken, who speaks English without accent or attitude, who makes friends easily and photographs well—you want her.

Ingrid Yung is a senior associate at a top Manhattan law firm and she’s up for partner. As one of the “women of colour” at the firm (or really, one of the few non-whites), she’s the “golden girl”, their diversity representative. And when some shit happens at the firm’s annual outing, the firm has to scramble to do damage control, that is, a “Diversity Initiative”. And of course Ingrid gets dragged in, her boss more or less makes her get involved, dragging her away from a very important deal that he already assigned her to.

“This country isn’t ready yet to ignore race or gender,” I snapped, regretting it the instant it was out of my mouth.

Silence. My words hung there in the air.

“I didn’t know you felt that strongly about it one way or another, Yung,” Murph said softly.

“Yeah,” Gavin finally said. “I mean”—and he said this gently, in a conciliatory tone—“I wasn’t even talking about Asians.”

Murph shot him a you are fucking hopeless look.

Gavin went on, “Seems to me like Asian Americans have done all right.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “I’m really glad it seems that way to you, Gavin.”

“Come on. I’m just saying that by any objective economic measure, Asians are right up there with whites.”

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This is workplace fiction. Law firm fiction. Not the more exciting courtroom drama kind of story but the kind of law that deals with mergers and acquisitions, deals, finance. That sort of thing. Nothing that I have the faintest idea about nor the slightest interest in. But what drew me in was Ingrid Yung. She is an Asian woman in a white man’s world. A determined, intelligent, confident woman, one who just happens to be Chinese-American. Her mom calls her often, worried about her single status, still wondering why she didn’t become a doctor. She was the kid in the elementary school cafeteria who ate all the funny foods. She was relatable. She was hardworking, determined, but also very human.

I did not appreciate Murph or anyone else scrutinizing what I was eating. It always felt, just a tiny bit, like I was back in my fourth-grade cafeteria, shyly unwrapping the scallion pancake or shrimp toast my mother would pack in aluminum foil in my lunchbox. “What’s that?” Becky Noble would wrinkle up her nose, her own tidy baloney-and-cheese sandwich raised halfway to her mouth, causing all of the other girls to giggle.

 

Helen Wan is herself an attorney so she writes a pretty good workplace novel, although some parts of the dealmaking went over my head, she did set the place well and I enjoyed immersing myself into that cutthroat Manhattan law firm world for a little while.

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy.

Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything, that was asked of me, I would be rewarded.

So the best way to describe this book is that it is about race in the workplace. It hits hard in some places but still manages to have a light, breezy tone, one that makes it easy to read, but also a little predictable and perhaps a bit too stereotypical. To explain that more would reveal a little too much of the storyline. I came into this book with no expectations, it being a completely random choice from the Scribd catalogue (because Scribd forces us to use up our credits or not get any new ones!). I hadn’t heard of the book before, nor the author, and the cover, well, you might know that I am not a fan of the half-hidden woman, especially the half-hidden Asian woman, much less the woman seen from behind, so I do not like these covers at all. But don’t let that stop you, don’t let the ugh covers push you away, ignore the fact that you’ve not heard of the book (unless you actually have!!!), and just go ahead and read it. It’s not for everyone of course, it is contemporary fiction, set in New York, in a law firm, a little predictable, but it has at its heart a wonderful main character, a strong (yet vulnerable) Asian woman. And you know what, we could always do with more books like that!

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I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge

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5 thoughts on “The Partner Track by Helen Wan

  1. I was actually JUST SAYING to someone that I rarely read books set in workplaces, and I almost always enjoy them when I do read them. Even if it’s not a job I would ever want (oh my God businessy sorts of law sound rough), I still like reading about the ins and outs of the job, and also the small irritations and small pleasures of working in an office. That was the fun of Then We Came to the End for me. Add “being smart about race” to all that, and yep, I can overlook some predictability. Adding to the list!

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  2. A woman in my book club picked this as one of our reads a couple of years ago. I couldn’t really get into it, but she related a lot to Ingrid’s struggles. She said it was a pretty accurate view of being a woman in a law firm.

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