Amherst Magazine

The Firm

Reviewed by Catherine Newman ’90

[Fiction] Ingrid Yung is an ambitious, brilliant (and beautiful) Chinese-American attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm, where she is poised to become its first minority female partner. To say that Ingrid’s experience at the firm swings wildly between soaring and sucking is not a spoiler, but it is an understatement. Corporate highs and lows, you’ll learn, if you did not already know, are different from the highs and lows of, say, buying cheese at Whole Foods or submitting a cartoon caption to The New Yorker. We are in the belly of the beast.

From the first pages of The Partner Track (St. Martin’s Press), Helen Wan—herself associate general counsel at the Time Inc. division of Time Warner—romances us with power, all the while revealing the betrayal, bigotry and illusion congealed inside of it. Here is Ingrid, euphoric about the closing of a deal: “I could feel the power and influence that coursed through these conference rooms like electrical currents high atop the city. ... It was thrilling, the promise of such a world.”

Helen Wan ’95

Wan’s debut novel is about an ambitious and brilliant corporate lawyer. Photo by Sigrid Estrada.

Indeed. Except that such a world also turns out to be, more or less, Thursday night TAP. Ingrid refers to a golden-boy associate as “a smart guy, despite the rich jock pedigree.” She compares the high-power associate hallway, with its polished brass nameplates, to “fraternity row.”

Sound familiar? I didn’t think so. Although, if you were a woman at Amherst in the ’80s or ’90s, that dislocated feeling—of crashing a boys-only party—might resonate. All the more so, I can only imagine, if you were a woman of color.

The novel’s plot kicks into high gear when, after a news-making racist parody at the annual summer outing, the firm scrambles to set in motion a “Diversity Initiative”—and forces Ingrid to be its poster girl, even as she works furiously to close the biggest deal of her career. Until now, the firm’s diversity initiatives have been all about margaritas for Cinco de Mayo, dumplings for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. “We didn’t need [expletive] Dumpling Day in the firm cafeteria,” Ingrid rages. “What we needed was decoder rings for all of the unwritten rules of survival here.” Suffice it to say that things get ugly, fast, and the racism and sexism that have been simmering below the surface erupt geyserously.

Ingrid leans in to future glory—but her occasional backward glimpses are revealing. She was the kid who brought shrimp toast and scallion pancakes to school for lunch (she now makes a point of eating nondescriptly). She remembers, at 10, borrowing a business-letter book from the library to write Sears, at her parents’ urging, about a washing-machine warranty. And she reminisces about a girlhood visit to New York City, where, at the apartment building of a wealthy acquaintance, a doorman mistakes her father for a delivery boy and the skyline dazzles her: “Each individual glittering box of light—like gems strung along a necklace—seemed to me to be a tiny oblong window onto success, acceptance, respect, that is to say, a place in the world.” If you were wondering why Ingrid is so ambitious, so desperate to belong, look no further. But this place in the world turns out to be some costly real estate.

The Partner Track is laced with corporate cultural phenomena and jargon that I found alternately alienating and fascinating, being the kind of person who might occasionally stuff someone’s wet snow boots with the unread business section of the Times. I’m sure many women in the corporate world will read this book and nod their heads, but I shook mine. Seriously?

Then again, my Town-of-Amherst life is more Portlandia than Mad Men, my curiosity about corporate culture more anthropological than intimate. While I check on the basement fermentation of my sauerkraut, someone is ordering the smoked squab at Jean-Georges! While I hold a foot up to the medicine-cabinet mirror to decide between my two pairs of Danskos, someone is checking out her Jimmy Choos in an office wardrobe!

If I have a criticism of Wan’s gripping and delightfully horrifying book, it’s that good and evil might be painted a little too starkly. Then again, it’s kind of a fairy tale, and you can’t help rooting for Ingrid to get her Cinderella ending. Not the prince holding out her glass slipper, but Ingrid becoming her own hero, and the world itself turning out to fit just right.

Newman writes an advice column for Real Simple and blogs at benandbirdy.blogspot.com. She is the author of the memoir Waiting for Birdy.