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The devil's in the details
on 8 June 2013
On one hand, Lindy DeKoven's debut is an entertaining and escapist read that gives a fascinating insider perspective into the misogynistic and hectic world of TV development. On the other hand, like 'The Devil Wears Prada', its obvious model, it ostensibly challenges some sexist stereotypes while confirming others - and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with Alexa's story as it developed, despite the 'empowering' ending.
Alexa Ross is vice president of comedy development at 'HBS', a primetime channel, and is proud of her ability to progress and compete in such a male-dominated industry. But when her old boss, Jerry Kellner, comes to work at HBS, all Alexa's worst nightmares seem to have come true. Jerry makes it clear that he's not only after Alexa's job, but wants the top prize, the role of president of entertainment. Alexa is determined to prove that she's a better executive than Jerry, despite his outward charm and his use of male bonding and 'schmoozing' to get ahead. However, as she embarks on a fragile new relationship with sixth-grade teacher Gordon and commits to mentoring one of his students, Marisol, retaining a work-life balance becomes harder than ever. Will Alexa choose her career or commit to her friends and family?
That question, in fact, is the problem, just as it was with 'The Devil Wears Prada'. If either Alexa or 'Prada's' heroine, Andy, had been shown to be truly ruthless or uncaring in their pursuit of promotion, I would be more sympathetic to this plotline. However, Alexa, at least (jury's probably out on Andy) clearly retains her moral centre while trying to get the top job. The most she can be accused of is working too hard, and as she clearly warned both Gordon and Marisol about the craziness of 'pilot season' beforehand, I didn't feel that she had been dishonest with either of them. In this context, Gordon's comment that Alexa is 'becoming just like Jerry' seems whiny and unjustified, not honest. DeKoven seems to have been aiming for a Miranda Priestly-esque 'You remind me of myself when I was your age' but it falls flat, especially given that Alexa goes out of her way to be supportive of her female coworkers and defend them against the worst of the men's sexism. As for Marisol, her close relationship with Alexa is simply unrealistic, given the short periods of time they have spent together, and the little that Alexa actually does to gain Marisol's trust. Given that work does not seem to be adversely affecting Alexa's personality, I could only read this as another version of the tired 'women can't have it all' trope.
This indicates a deeper problem in the novel. DeKoven is commendably clear about the damaging effects of the sexist culture at HBS and the power of the 'glass ceiling'. However - and I think, unconsciously - she confirms another set of gender stereotypes in doing so. The novel rightly suggests that it's not just outright sexism that is the problem, but a work environment that doesn't recognise women's strengths, focusing instead on the shallow glamour of somebody like Jerry. As Alexa comments to a female colleague: 'Women just don't think like that. We kill ourselves to do the best we can. We believe that if we do a great job we'll be rewarded.' While DeKoven is absolutely right that work environments should recognise both traditionally 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities, where I think she goes wrong is in ascribing 'feminine' strengths to all her female characters, and failing to recognise, for example, that women can be good at 'guys' stuff' and some men might reject this macho culture. Alexa notes that she is good at her job because she is creative and great at communication, which is fine, but in a book that deals so heavily with gender issues, I felt that a more well-rounded, less female-coded skillset might have been appropriate for the heroine. While this might sound a tall order, it can be done - the fantastic Jojo in Marian Keyes's 'The Other Side of the Story', who also suffers sex discrimination at work, is a case in point.
While it may seem beside the point to have discussed the feminist issues that this novel raises in such detail, unfortunately these problems really hindered my enjoyment of the story, so I felt that I had to mention them in my review. For other chick lit novels that deal with similar themes in a more interesting way, I would recommend 'The Other Side of the Story' or Erin Duffy's 'Bond Girl'.