Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Assistants" by Camille Perri

As a society, we love rooting for David over Goliath, for the underdog to get their day, for people we perceive to be unethical or just plain evil to get their comeuppance. But what if we knew the underdog wasn't entirely virtuous or correct—would we still root for them, because we think their foe is worse?

I always marvel when a writer can make readers root for, or sympathize with, characters who aren't entirely on the up-and-up. It's the hallmark of shows like Dexter or even The Sopranos, that you'd rather the bad people not get caught even if they deserve to. Despite the fact that this is her debut novel, Camille Perri demonstrates this skill very well in The Assistants.

"All important men have assistants. That's the first principle I want you to remember. Do important women also have assistants? Yes, of course. But men rule the world. Still. That's the second principle I want you to remember. Men still rule the world. Not because this is some feminist manifesto, but because it's a simple fact essential to how this all started."

Tina Fontana is 30 years old, and the assistant to Robert Barlow, a media mogul who is CEO of Titan Corporation. (Think a Texan, slightly-less-odious Rupert Murdoch.) Robert trusts Tina implicitly, and she's great at her job, solving problems, schmoozing those who want things from her boss he's not willing to give, making reservations, and corralling the staff. She knows she's smarter than her day-to-day tasks prove, and she certainly is worth more than her meager salary, but she feels integral. For an assistant.

One day, she stumbles on an accounting error related to one of Robert's expense reports, an error that presents her with a tidy sum of money. This money would be enough to pay off her student loans, and allow her to perhaps pay her phone bill and eat dinner at a restaurant. Given Titan's finances, this would be just a drop in the bucket. Would anyone even notice anyway?

Once her ethical lapse is discovered, Tina finds herself helping another assistant within the company eliminate her debt. But while she knows she was wrong, and she'd just like to put it all behind her, as more people get involved, Tina realizes her life is changing. Suddenly she's not the mild-mannered assistant who slices limes perfectly for Robert's cocktails. Suddenly she's at the forefront of a movement she unwittingly started, one attempting to bring equity where there never has been before. But it can't work, can it?

While obviously the plot of The Assistants is far-fetched (I'd imagine), it's a really enjoyable read. We know inherently Tina and her crew are committing crimes, and we know their good fortune can't last forever, but we want it to. Perri does a great job unfurling Tina's ethical and emotional dilemmas, but she's careful not to paint Robert as too much of an ogre either. This book definitely taps into some very relevant themes in today's world, including gender inequity and student loan debt.

This really was good fun, and a tremendously entertaining, quick read. If you're the type of person who roots for the "bad guys," you might enjoy this book. I definitely did.

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