By Michelle Singletary
I typically make selections for the Color of Money Book Club on topics such as investing, retirement saving, getting a mortgage or buying long-term care insurance. You know, important but not very sexy stuff.
I’m venturing out of the box this month, recommending “Bond Girl” by Erin Duffy (William Morrow, $24.99), a former Wall Street worker who has written an engaging novel about a young woman’s entree into what’s still largely a man’s world. Duffy graduated from Georgetown University in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in English and spent about 12 years working for Wall Street firms.
In her first novel, Duffy, who started at Merrill Lynch right out of college, personalizes the people many Americans have come to loathe, a fact not lost on researchers. “Animosity toward banks, financial institutions and Wall Street has been an important part of the public discourse since the bank bailouts of 2008,” writes Lindsay Owens, in the spring issue of Public Opinion Quarterly. By 2009, stockbrokers’ ethics ratings were at an all-time low, concludes Owens, a fellow at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.
In Duffy’s novel we meet Alex Garrett, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia who has just landed a highly competitive position on the bond sales desk at the fictitious brokerage firm Cromwell Pierce. This is the Wall Street version of Lauren Weisberger’s best-seller “The Devil Wears Prada,” a fictionalized look at the fashion industry. Just replace the focus on clothes and shoes with stocks and bonds. It’s chick lit with a financial services backdrop.
“The hierarchy in most Wall Street firms is clearly delineated,” Alex muses. “You spend your first few years as an analyst, responsible for learning as much as you can, and making sure the rest of ‘the team’ gets their lunch orders picked up from the lobby in a timely fashion.”
We quickly learn that if you aren’t bringing in money, you aren’t worth much. As Alex’s boss says to her on her first day: “You will not ask for anything. The way I see it, you don’t deserve anything. No one knows you, you haven’t done one productive thing to help this group make money, and until you do, you should just thank God every day that you’re able to clear the turnstiles in the lobby.”
What a lovely welcome to the privilege of working on Wall Street.
There is a fair amount of harassment and debasing of women that is a subplot in this tale. Alex’s co-workers call her “Girlie.” She’s made to move from desk to desk for a year with a folding chair. And yet the character puts up with everything because she wants to play with the boys, who we learn get big fat checks at the end of the year that make up for the ugly part of the business. You’ve no doubt heard about this tradition. The year-end Wall Street bonuses are obscene and made no less so in Duffy’s book. Alex gets $20,000 her first year after mostly ordering and retrieving lunches.
“Give it a few more years and that twenty grand will look like chump change,” her boss says.
“No way, that’ll never happen,” Alex says, hoping he’s right.
You are nearly done with the novel before the Great Recession hits the firm and the employees start to panic, not about what’s happening to the public but that their hefty paydays are in jeopardy.
“It was getting to the point where I was afraid to tell people what I did for a living,” Alex says. “Where I once felt pride I now felt fear.”
Duffy was laid off from Merrill Lynch in 2008 as part of the economic meltdown. She then worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and the Bank of Nova Scotia, respectively. She resigned from the industry in January.
From the occasional financial material (never too dense to impede your reading) to the treatment of women, an office romance that goes very bad, to the impending doom you know is coming, Duffy crafts a witty and very racy (be prepared for some coarse language) narrative. Trust me, you won’t be bored with this Wall Street story.
Michelle Singletary: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington Post Writers Group
‘Bond Girl’ chat
Michelle Singletary will host a live online discussion about “Bond Girl” at 9 a.m. PDT on April 26 at washingtonpost.com/conversations. Duffy will join her to answer your questions.
Every month, Singletary randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, which is donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of this month’s book club selection, send an e-mail to email@example.com with your name and address.