ugh, this is what i get for not reviewing my books right away. this was the veryfirst book i read in 2021 and now it’s may—mere WEEKS before pub date, and my memory of it is fuzzier than this book deserves.
it’s being pitched as The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out. my interests lie firmly on the Get Out side of that spectrum, and—to me—this book took its sweet time getting to that part, and by the time it shifted from being an office drama centered on frustrated ambitions, forced-grin “hey, girl” rivalries, awkward meetings, and details of personal grooming and attire, i’d already figured out how the Get Out of it was going to manifest.
that all makes it sound like i didn’t like it, which is not the case.
i’ve never read The Devil Wears Prada, or any office-based novels i can think of right now for comparison, but i thought this one did an excellent job of structuring a contemporary workplace novel around the ‘ordinary horrors’ of office politics and racial inequality in the publishing world.
nella rogers is a twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant at wagner books, and the only back girl in the office. two years ago, when she was hired—because her perspective was “raw and bold and unique”—she was so bright-eyed with expectation about landing her first office job; eager to promote diversity and help make broad changes in the publishing world; to help pave the way for more black voices. wagner seemed like it would be a good fit, because ONE TIME, they published a book by a black author that nella deeply admired, but after her enthusiastic attempts to campaign for diversity went nowhere, she just started putting her head down, working hard, and hoping her efforts would be noticed and rewarded. now, two promotionless years on, she is still trying to navigate her way through the office dynamics, becoming increasingly disenchanted by the great white rut of every publishing season.
like most publishing houses, wagner is very static, and nella’s inexperience in ‘how offices are’ makes her question whether her failure to rise through the ranks is a personal thing, or a racial thing, causing her some paranoid agita about whether she’s gaslighting herself and making it out to be more than it is, or if it’s all just business as usual. she appeals to her bestie malaika for advice about whether it’s discrimination or just… her, and if she should be taking this being-overlooked thing personally:
“…lemme ask you this. Do you see any other white assistants getting promoted that have been there for less time than you?”
“No,” Nella had admitted, “I guess pretty much every editor has been stingy about upward mobility—even for the white assistants.”
“Well, there you go.”
“So…we don’t think it’s a race thing?”
“Hell, yeah. That’s a factor, too. She’s protecting what’s hers for as long as she can…you know, the way some white people insist on reproducing with white people simply so they can preclude the population of mixed-race babies that’s indubitably gonna rule the country by 2045.
malaika dismisses nella’s concerns with humor, but her paranoia only heightens when hazel is hired. at first, nella is delighted to see another black girl entering the fold, but this is soon followed by no small measure of suspicion and jealousy. hazel is a shiny new girl, flashier and more outgoing than nella, more accomplished, and more accustomed to playing the social game of office work. before too long, hazel is fraternizing with the bigwigs, getting more perks and seeing her own pet projects realized.
and then threatening notes start appearing on nella’s desk, telling her to leave wagner. (i.e. to GET OUT!)
the plot thickens, the workplace becomes more competitive and low-key sinister, but there’s always that lingering doubt about whether hazel is just a confident and charming person better at acclimating and getting what she wants or if nella is deliberately being pushed aside by the other black girl.
it’s smart and observant and dark-funny, and the character work is excellent, but it isn’t the horror novel i was anticipating by the Get Out namedrop. the reveal is pretty shrug-predictable which would only be a negative thing if everything leading up to it wasn’t so strong. it’s never scary, but it’s got a real nice slow-burning tension to it that makes you want to get to the bottom of the whole hazel: secret agenda or not? situation.
SIDE NOTE: some of the best (& unbearably awkward) parts of the book center around nella’s interactions with a whiteboy author who has written a novel featuring an offensively stereotypical black character named shartricia, whose name particularly makes nella cringe. having this in the back of my mind made me chuckle out loud when i subsequently read My Darkest Prayer, whose (black) author references “a woman by the unfortunate name of La’Unique.”
see, nella, it could have been worse!