Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Partner Track by Helen Wan

Helen Wan photo by Sigrid Estrada
I have no interest in corporate law, but Helen Wan's guest post @Books in the City about writing beyond traditional ethnic literature caught my attention. Wan noted that most Asian American novels follow a formula: Old World relatives, an arranged marriage, a wedding banquet and a soul-searching visit to the Motherland. Although she enjoys those books, Wan wanted to ask a new question:
"What happens to these hyphenated Americans, these Minority Darlings, when they are finally within striking distance of The American Dream, the one their immigrant parents have been hoping to see them achieve all their lives?"
Wan's debut novel, The Partner Track, is set at a top New York law firm, following its characters from boardroom to bedroom. An in house attorney at Time Inc, the author translates the complexities of legal issues clearly for a general audience. Romantic shenanigans and corporate intrigue make for a fun read with unexpected plot twists.

Ingrid Yung is determined to be the first woman of color to make partner, but she wants no special accommodation for her ethnicity or her gender. She works harder than her male cohorts but doesn't get invited out to drinks with the senior partners. When the opportunity to prove herself arises, Ingrid gives 100%, but her boss wants more. He pressures her into joining a new diversity committee at the firm. The experience increases her awareness of the tacit prejudice in her workplace, but she "isn't about to rock the boat. Not this close to shore." A clandestine relationship with a coworker helps keep her afloat but is not without risks for both of them. Will Ingrid sink or swim?

The Partner Track is more commercial than literary in style, but it has substance. The most touching segments were flashbacks to Ingrid's childhood and the discrimination her immigrant parents faced. Visiting a friend at a luxurious New York apartment, her academic father is mistaken for a Chinese food delivery man and asked to use the back door. An appliance store refuses to fix her mom's defective machine until young Ingrid pens a letter in legal ease. Ingrid realizes that law is power and dreams of earning a spot in the glitzy New York skyline.

Many readers would relate to Ingrid's ambitions, but I found her world too materialistic and shallow. Like her law school professor, I wish Ingrid had used her talent for the greater good, but challenging corporate America to be more inclusive is admirable too. Ingrid is a morally grounded character who sees the flaws in her world. I hope Wan's next novel will step out of the boardroom and into the broader realm of social justice. I'd be more eager to read a book like that, but The Partner Track succeeds on its own terms. It would be a good match for readers interested in law, feminism, immigration and ethnic literature. It's a must read for anyone (male or female) contemplating a career in corporate law.

Another shot of Central Park last week. I went back home to see an all male performance of Shakespeare's 
Twelfth Night
 on Broadway: marvelous! Arrive early to watch the cross-dressing actors made up on stage.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the ebook myself without compensation. On her website, the lawyer-author reminds the readers that her book is fiction. Published by St. Martin's Press in September, 2013. Thanks, Colleen, for the recommendation. Check out Books in the City for more novels about immigrants and working women in contemporary America. The Central Park photos are under my copyright.

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@Barrie Summy


Rose said...

Ingrid's reluctance to "not rock the boat this close too shore" is understandable; I'm sure many readers would stop to think about what they would do in a similar situation.

Another great review, Sarah, though I have to admit corporate law and corporate politics in general aren't the kind of subject matter I enjoy reading.

Stacy Nyikos said...

Interesting. The main character doesn't want to rock the boat, and the writer doesn't seem to either, in that she chooses mainstream trade lit over literature. Why is it that the two forms of literature so rarely rarely ever coalesce in one piece?

Barrie said...

Hi Sarah! Welcome back from NY. Thanks for posting autumnal photos! I believe I have a great sense of this book from your review. Sounds as thought the author achieved her goal of not writing the typical Asian-American novel. Thanks for joining in!

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, a good writer makes you empathize with the main character. It was a good experience for me, reading outside my usual fare.

Stacy, the advantage of this book being more commercial than literary (it's actually a hybrid) is that the message will reach a broader audience. Wan, a practicing attorney, is rocking the boat by criticizing her profession for its sexism and racism.

Barrie, thanks for hosting the book review club!

Unknown said...

My only experience with corporate law is movies and television, and I always think, How can people live like that? I guess maybe this book helps clear some of that up.

Great review, as always.

Unknown said...

Darn it! It lets me post with my Google account, but doesn't show my name. I'm not sure how to fix that. That last review was from Alyssa. :)

A Cuban In London said...

Loved this review and I agree with Wan. The same could be said of Asian (in the British sense) novels. Old family from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka and a soul-searching journey to the main character's "roots". I have read novels about law and corporate law, but that was in 20s. Maybe it's time to get acquainted with an "old friend" again. :-)


Greetings from London.

Lucy said...

I typically enjoy books that have a legal premise. This one sounds like it would be interesting. The only concern I have is the materialistic and shallow perspective you mentioned. Sometimes it can be enough to take the good out of the story (so to speak). Still think I'd like to check it out though. Thanks for the review. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, I love how books show us other worlds. Try googling your sign in problem?

ACIL, yes I’ve seen this trend in British-Asian and post-colonial lit. There’s a fun corporate intrigue plot line in Partner Track as well.

Lucy, I grew up Manhattan and have classmates who went into corporate law etc. I turned my back on that lifestyle by becoming an artist/writer married to a professor in Maine. The MC, as a child of immigrants, grew up without this privilege and hungers for it. That’s understandable. Ingrid is also more into proving herself than into getting rich; she is morally grounded too. Her world might be shallow and corrupt, but she is not.

Jenn Jilks said...

Excellent, Sarah! Sounds like an interesting pairing to my autobiographical book review! How interesting!

walk2write said...

Besides the fact that the MC's name is interesting to me, I would be more inclined to like this sort of novel because it doesn't avoid portraying the natural human desire to succeed (economically/academically/professionally) in this world. Most immigrants still face an uphill battle and shouldn't have guilt piled on them for achieving their goals and dreams of a better life in America. I applaud Ms. Wan for creating a forum with her novel for intelligent discussion about this topic. You deserve credit too, Sarah, for your honest review and opinion, although I don't necessarily agree with you regarding personal ambition. The MC's need to climb the corporate ladder might also be perceived as a social issue. Your photos of New York, by the way, are breathtaking!

Amanda Summer said...

Totally agree that corporate law holds no interest for me - too much focus on materialism. Having said that, it sounds like the author offers an interesting take on the subject.

Amanda Summer said...

P.S. The all male Twelfth Night sounds very entertaining. I saw this play recently at our city's outdoor Shakespeare festival and as always, had trouble following all the convolutions of the plot!

Lucy said...

Thanks for the follow up to my comment. I'd already ordered the book before I read and that makes me feel better about that. :)

troutbirder said...

So you liked it and gave it credit in some ways but were some what skeptical and less interested in others. Which all added up to a great review. Therefore, though corporate America, lawyers and New York city aren't exactly my milieu, I must admit (with out naming anybody because of a silence contract I signed) a big time New York City law firm took on Big Pharmo for me some ten years ago and I was very satisfied with the result. In other words I think I'd love reading this novel....:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Jen, The Partner Track does dovetail well with the autobiography you reviewed.

w2w, good point!

Amanda, you have to see 12th Night more than once to follow it. Reading it in advance helps too. And yes, The Partner Track made corporate law more interesting.

Lucy and troutbirder, I'd love to hear what you think of the book.

Stacy said...

Sarah, I love reading your reviews because you often pick books I've never heard of, and they always sound unique. I really like the premise of this one.

Ellen Booraem said...

Very insightful and useful review, Sarah (as usual). I suspect I might give this one a miss, although some aspects of it do sound fun. And full marks for avoiding the soul-searching visit to the Motherland!

cynthia newberry martin said...

Thanks for the introduction to a new author, Sarah. And I loved the red leaves and white bark against the cobalt sky below!

Booksnyc said...

Great review! I am glad the author's guest post sparked your interest. The discussion in your comments is very dynamic!

Sarah Laurence said...

Booksnyc, yes, it was a fascinating discussion! Thanks for telling me about this though provoking book.