December 2013: The Partner Track
Brilliant young attorney Ingrid Yung is close to achieving her career goal, a prestigious partnership, when an event threatens to derail her: a racially charged performance at the staff summer outing that lays bare the firm’s tolerance of sexist and racist behavior. Despite its snappy pace and tone, The Partner Track—a fresh, engaging debut from a writer whose day job is corporate attorney (full disclosure: at Time Inc., parent company of RealSimple.com)—tackles some serious subjects. RealSimple.com Business Development Associate Emily Schroeder moderated our discussion.
The Partner Track: Chapters 1 Through 8
I hope that you’ve had some downtime despite the busy holiday season kickoff. I was in a Thanksgiving food-induced coma over the weekend and welcomed curling up on the couch with The Partner Track. Even had a few wee-hours-of-the-morning reading sessions. Like I said, my sleep schedule is far from normal these days (and this baby has decided that nighttime is for playing and kicking!).
Getting down to business, what do you think about the book so far?
The Partner Track opens with a detailed description of the cafeteria politics at Parsons Valentine, a very successful corporate law firm in Manhattan, where the main character, Ingrid Yung, is an attorney. Did anyone have flashbacks to high school when reading about the Jury Box? Author Helen Wan writes, “At Parsons Valentine & Hunt LLP, every step you took was a carefully calibrated decision, right down to where you sat at lunch—especially the year you were up for partner.” She goes on to describe this lunchtime grouping—the associates who gossiped and gabbed, the group of lawyers who sit only with partners, and, finally, the loners of the firm. These cliques reminded me of a high school lunch room, although the setting at Parsons Valentine is a step up (okay, maybe a giant leap…the executive director of Dining Services apprenticed at Le Bernardin for goodness sake—at my high school it was square pizza and Tater Tots!).
In any case, Wan gives us a behind-the-scenes look at this high-powered NYC law firm and it’s quickly apparent that Ingrid Yung is both a minority and a female in a law firm that resembles a scene from Mad Men, except set in present day.
We are also learning about Ingrid’s desire to become partner and what she’ll put up with (or try to ignore) in order to get there: a heavy-duty workload with an almost unrealistic time frame, coupled with an inexperienced paralegal. And then there’s Ted Lassiter and his comments about Asian-American women. Have you ever had to deal with similar remarks made to you in the workplace? How did you handle the situation?
We are also starting to see Ingrid’s gumption as the book gets going. In Chapter 3, on the way to a lunch meeting, Ingrid has a run-in with a street artist who throws some racially charged words her way. Her reaction: taking a stiletto to one of his paintings! Wham! What did you think about her reaction? Would you have done the same thing? I was so proud of Ingrid for standing up to the vendor. We’ve all been judged in some way at some point in our lives and then find ourselves doing or saying things that are surprising…or possibly looking back and wishing we had. Can you relate?
In Chapter 4 Wan describes Ingrid’s childhood and early experiences with racism, which created a turning point in her life. Ingrid says, “So I simply willed myself to succeed—over and over and over again—because I had to. It was the only way I could think of to protect my parents and myself. It was how I would justify what my family was doing here. I didn’t see any other way.” Do you agree? What do you think Ingrid’s parents would say to this?
When I hit Chapter 5, I could not stop reading (one of my late night/can’t sleep/the baby is kicking chapters). Wan described the entire country club outing so well that I felt like I was there—especially at the end of the chapter when, unfortunately, the racist parody unfolded. I felt my cheeks getting red! I mean, what were these guys thinking (or, I guess they weren’t). What were your feelings during this chapter? Did you think that it was believable or hard to envision?
Another moment that stood out in this chapter was the “A-1” comment at the dinner table. I think we’ve all been in Caleb’s shoes (at least I know that I have.) A moment of feeling so embarrassed that you want to hide under the table. Poor guy just wanted some steak sauce! Would you have helped ease the unwarranted (in my opinion) tension in this situation? Or do you think that Caleb was out of line? Interested to hear your thoughts. I know these topics can get heated!
Chapters 6 and 7 introduce the firm’s diversity initiative and Dr. Rossi, who is hired to investigate issues within the firm. Adler pushes (with a heavy hand) Ingrid to spend time on the diversity committee and she agrees. Does she have a choice? What do you think of Adler at this point? What is he up to?
We wrap up this section with Chapter 8 and the softball game, which led to a very interesting postgame celebration at a nearby bar. A heated conversation between Tyler and Ingrid brings up the events that went down at the country club and the new diversity initiative within the firm. Tyler warns Ingrid to be careful and not to say too much—basically to watch her back. Does Tyler know something? What is he hinting at here?
And, I have to be honest…I had a hard time stopping at the end of this chapter! I am dying to know what happens between Murph and Ingrid. What do you think of their new romantic relationship? Is it safe for Ingrid to date a coworker? The sap in me is excited to read more about this budding romance—where will it go?
So what were your first impressions, and what are you expecting to happen next? Like I said, I definitely want to see what happens with Murph since we were left off on such a romantic cliffhanger. And I am also wondering where this high profile case will take Ingrid…excited to keep reading! For next Friday, we’ll read Chapters 9 through 17.
One more thing: As a thank-you for your participation this month, at the end of our discussion, we’ll throw the names of all the participants in a hat and draw one, who’ll get a personalized autographed copy of the book from Helen Wan.
Until next week, happy reading,
The Partner Track: Chapters 9 Through 17
First, thank you to the readers who left comments last week—it’s so nice to hear from you and get your thoughts about this book. Please keep them coming!
I know that I am not alone in saying that I am very excited to discuss this last section, especially the end of Chapter 17. So, major spoiler alert!! If you haven’t finished this chapter yet, then stop reading. I don’t want to ruin the juicy drama that is about to unfold.
For those of you who are caught up, let’s get going.…
First off, I am dying to talk about the argument between Murph (jerk!) and Ingrid and the intense partner conversation that ended with a security escort, but let’s first cover a few moments in some of the earlier chapters that were also noteworthy.
We started off Chapter 9 with the budding romance between Murph and Ingrid. As I said in my last post, I am a huge sap for romance and I was excited to see their relationship heat up. Murph seemed like such a nice guy. I found myself rooting for him. But was he a little too charming? Was he always saying exactly the right thing to win Ingrid over?
We start to see subtle foreshadowing in this chapter (which I should have picked up on…oh, hindsight!). Ingrid says, “He reached over and stroked my cheek very gently with his fingertip, and it felt so good that my eyes nearly filled. Oh, sweetie, you are in trouble, I thought to myself.”
At this point, I am starting to see a clear theme. Red flags are popping up all over Ingrid’s personal and work life—first with the law firm politics and now with Murph—but she pushes them aside, and in some cases doesn’t even fully acknowledge these warnings coming from her gut. Ingrid’s friend Rachel even brings up Murph’s ladies’ man reputation at lunch and says, “Isn’t he the one you said was a huge player?” Ingrid promises Rachel that she’ll “play it close to the vest,” but will she?
In Chapter 11 we see how hard Ingrid works for the firm, especially during the big SunCorp acquisition deal. Can you imagine staying at work for 34 hours straight? No wonder Ingrid gets so irate at the end of Chapter 17 during the partnership meeting with Adler. I’d probably blow a gasket too! But Ingrid chalks up her heavy workload to the pursuit of making partner. She says, “Here was the thing about law firm partners. They knew exactly how to dole out enough praise at exactly the right moment to make an associate feel just appreciated enough to stay. We weren’t colleagues; we were more like pets.” Have you ever felt this way at work?
Ingrid sees herself being used, overworked, underappreciated, but continues on. What do you think of her actions? Does she have a choice, if she wants to make partner? Is it worth it? And what will happen once she does make partner? Will these red flags simply go away?
Moving on to Chapters 13 to 17… I was so thankful to have this book to distract me from my late-night pregnancy insomnia! I literally could not stop reading. The big highlights were, of course, the Diversity Dinner and Adler’s speech regarding the firm’s efforts toward racial and gender diversity (or lack thereof) and then the moment in which he points to Ingrid in the crowd as being an example of the firm’s diversity initiatives. Bold move, Adler!
How would you have reacted? Is Ingrid just a quota for the firm? Or was Adler innocently trying to help with the diversity initiative, not realizing his offensiveness. What do you think?
Ingrid says, “I had seen it coming and just stood back and invited them in. They were only doing what came naturally—it was my job alone to protect myself and watch my own back. But I had failed spectacularly. I’d been a fool.”
We move on to the big meeting with the SunCorp folks and the mistakes found in documents that Ingrid and Justin had reviewed repeatedly the night before. Something seems really fishy here. What do you think? Was it Ingrid who made these mistakes or is someone else to blame?
We finish the section with the page-turning fight between Murph and Ingrid. Man, what a J-E-R-K! Wan does a wonderful job throughout the book of making you feel like you are actually in Ingrid’s shoes. This chapter was a perfect example. I felt like I had just been slapped in the face. And I’ve got to admit…I did not see it coming! Murph’s last few comments to Ingrid really made my blood boil…especially the remarks about bragging to fellow firm members about intimate moments between the two of them. Did you foresee this happening? Do you think it’s because Murph can’t handle a smart/successful woman, or is there more to it?
We finish off this section with a real climax. I would have never imagined Ingrid being escorted out of the firm by security. But I am glad that she told Adler exactly what she thought and finally stood up for herself. It had obviously been brewing.
However, while I felt so proud of Ingrid for following her gut, I felt sad for her that it had to end in this way. She’s devoted so much time (her life, really) to the firm and this is how it ends? And with Murph—she never deserved (no one does) to be spoken to in that way, and for those to be their last words to each other…just sad.
What are your feelings at this point in the book? Are you glad that Ingrid handled her meeting with Adler in the way that she did? Wish that it went down differently? What are your thoughts about Murph? Is this the end of her romantic relationship, not to mention her job? My gut says no. I am eager to read on…
Please share your thoughts on Chapters 9 through 17 below. I can’t wait to hear what you’re thinking.
Let’s meet back here in a week to talk about the ending (Chapters 18 to 25). Happy reading, Bookies!
The Partner Track: Chapters 18 Through 25 (Spoiler Alert!)
Hard to believe that it’s our third and final discussion of The Partner Track. I raced through this last section, dying to know how everything was going to turn out. To me, that’s the sign of a good book—obviously when you can’t put it down, but also when you wish that the pages won’t stop. And judging by all your comments, I wasn’t alone!
First, I loved reading your thoughts and I am so glad that I wasn’t the only one who had blinders on about the Ingrid-Murph romance. Even halfway through this last section, I found myself thinking, Maybe there’s a perfect explanation for the way he acted. Is that crazy? Is pregnancy actually clouding my judgment? Did anyone else find themselves hoping that Ingrid and Murph would end up happily ever after? But as we dive deeper and deeper into this section we see that Murph does things that are unjustifiable and downright cruel. We’ll get to that…
We start off section three with the aftermath of Ingrid’s explosion with Adler, which resulted in her termination. Again, Wan does a wonderful job of making her readers feel as if they are with Ingrid in her dark, depressing apartment. Poor girl holed up for days in bed wondering how she was going to start over. My heart went out to her in this chapter. She worked so hard, spent so many hours at the office, and put up with sexism and racism, all for it to blow up in her face. My question to you: Is she completely the victim here? Did she bring some of it on herself? I am really interested to hear your thoughts. I am slightly conflicted myself. Mostly I feel sorry for Ingrid and mad at the firm for taking advantage of her. Yet there’s a small part of me that thinks she let some of it happen. But could she have done anything differently?
In chapters 19 and 20 Ingrid takes a step closer to independence from the firm and tests out her new schedule (or lack thereof). I love Wan’s description of the city during the work week. I had a similar moment when I first started working. I remember going to the gym on a random day off and seeing an entirely different crowd compared to my usual after-work exercisers. Like Ingrid, I would make up things about their professions, retirement, or trust funds. Or, as Wan says, “maybe they were simply taking a long-overdue day off.”
During Ingrid’s first post-quitting outing, she experiences yet another racist remark from a fellow bagel shop patron. She ends the chapter with these thoughts: “Making partner, I’d somehow thought, would make me whole. I would become immune to the little humiliations I had collected over all these years. But it hasn’t worked. It would never work. It had been doomed from the start. I knew that now. I also knew exactly what that made me— just another dropout, just another Minority Darling who had come really, really close.” Thoughts? Do you agree with Ingrid’s feelings?
One of my favorite chapters is 20 and the phone call with Ingrid’s parents. I think that everyone can relate to building something up in your head and then, when it all comes spewing out, the receiving party is much more compassionate than you had imagined and the situation much less dire. Anyway, I love her parents’ reaction and support. Most of all, I am glad that Ingrid realized that her parents didn’t need protecting, she did. And at this point in Ingrid’s life (and in the book) I saw a major change.
The next five chapters flew by and I love how it all turned out. In Chapter 21 Ingrid hits another breaking point, and right before she’s about to lose it, she spots the Wall Street Journal article that changes her life. Then Justin shows up at her door with data that proved Murph had hacked in to the file and sabotaged the SunCorp. meeting. We all thought something was fishy and our instincts were right—it wasn’t Ingrid’s mistake but slimy Murph. I finally gave up (gladly gave up) on any rekindling of romance. Nail in coffin. You?
Chapter 23 was another exciting point in the book with a follow-up conversation with Adler. I saw a real change in Chapter 23 Ingrid compared to Chapter 1 Ingrid. That Ingrid was always trying to please the partners in order to get to the top. Here, she’s all about ruffling feathers and I love it! Good for her for sneaking back in to the firm and making Adler listen to what she (and Justin) discovered. And even more power to her when she sticks it to Adler and the firm using her knowledge of the law. Adler’s reaction to the SunCorp. deal is priceless, especially his offer for her to rejoin the firm, no questions asked. In my opinion, this is the moment when Ingrid beat Parsons Valentine. Maybe she didn’t make partner, but she won in a bigger way. What do you think?
The final two chapters bring everything to a close. Murph is let go, although he manages to leave with a positive reference and “perpetual confidentiality and nondisparagement clause.” Wan writes, “He was going to be fine. The Murphs of the world would always be fine.” She goes on to say, “But, as I was finally learning, so would I.”
The new Ingrid realized that she’s worked too hard and for too long to give up on her goal. She says, “I was never going to win as long as I continued to play by other people’s rules. Instead, more of us needed to get into the business of making them up for ourselves.” I loved reading about all the job offers that came pouring in and the note from Ted Lassiter—giving her the ultimate compliment by saying that he wanted to work with the best lawyer out there: her.
Ingrid finally finds career happiness when she opens the law offices of Ingrid Yung PLLC. I wish that I could have jumped into the book and hugged her! Wan allowed us to get to know Ingrid so well that I felt myself becoming proud of her for making herself happy. For answering to Ingrid and only Ingrid. She seemed so much lighter in this chapter, like the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders—enjoying her coworkers, spending less hours glued to her office chair, and realizing that it’s more about work/life balance in the long run. The book ends with this thought from Ingrid, “I felt widely free. I felt both young and fearless.” Her new and improved mantra.
So what do you think of the post–Parsons Valentine Ingrid? Are you happy with the way the book ended? Wish it ended differently? What are your thoughts on the discrimination that Ingrid faced in the workplace? Was there anything that she could have done differently to overcome these barriers?
I am very eager to read your comments about this last section. Now, happy news: Author Helen Wan will answer our questions, so post any you may have for her below by EOD on Monday, December 30. We’ll wait until everyone’s comments are in before drawing the name of the winner of an inscribed copy of The Partner Track—our thank-you for participating this month—just after New Year’s.
Thanks so much for joining me in this book discussion. I’ve truly enjoyed being the moderator and hope to be back again soon (after my maternity leave)! Happy holidays and take care.
Helen Wan Talks About The Partner Track
We’re kicking off the New Year with a Q&A with Helen Wan, the author of our December pick, The Partner Track. You may remember that debut novelist is just Helen’s night job: By day, she’s a lawyer at Time Inc., the company that publishes Real Simple. So she must have been working triple-time to get her answers back to us so quickly! As happy as I am that our club could help launch Helen’s book, Helen is even more grateful to all the Bookies for choosing it. But I’ll let her tell you so...
First of all, I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed following the thoughtful conversation among your Book Club readers. It was an honor to be able to get such candid and meaningful feedback on my book. So thank you to everyone who read! It really meant a lot to this first-time novelist. Happy New Year!
From reader CatKib: If Ingrid had a daughter, what would her profession or job or “place in life” be? Thank you for a great read!
I love this question! Thank you for asking it. While I was on book tour this fall, I was struck and inspired by the number of readers who came up to get their book inscribed not to themselves but to their daughters. When I started writing this novel over a decade ago, I thought it would be a book about sexism, race, and class in the workplace, but I realized it’s also about women’s complicated relationship with ambition itself. I found myself trying to answer this question, for overachieving “striver” Type-A’s everywhere: If we find ourselves among the very few who can, does that necessarily mean we must? How responsible are we for our own happiness? Can we stay true to ourselves while achieving career success, especially in a corporate environment? And, hey, what’s the definition of “success,” anyway? All of this is a long way of saying that if Ingrid had a daughter, she’d want her place in life to be one where she was waking up in the morning feeling happy about where she’d be spending the day, living an authentic life that agreed with her personal values, and finding that elusive balance between practicality and passion. After all, I think that’s the luckiest career situation anyone can ever find herself in: to be able to support yourself doing something you absolutely love.
From reader karingam: How much of this book is autobiographical? It is so realistic! Thank you for a great story!
Thank you for the compliment! Well, since I’m a Chinese-American woman with a full-time law career, I clearly do share some traits with Ingrid. Every novelist draws from his or her own life experiences, and they say a first novel is often a writer’s “most autobiographical.” That said, this book is decidedly fiction—thank goodness! Since it’s a novel, I got to make up an entire story arc—inventing all kinds of plot twists and turns, which was great fun—but I certainly tried to draw the emotion from real life. For numerous scenes, I definitely drew upon my own personal experiences from back when I was a young attorney at a huge corporate law firm, as well as anecdotes and experiences that so many friends and colleagues generously shared with me about their own work lives. (Writing this book, I learned that people are incredibly willing to share their stories about life in corporate America. I definitely had no shortage of material!) It was extremely important to me that this portrayal of a young workingwoman’s life in the contemporary corporate arena be as accurate, realistic, unvarnished, and true to life as possible. So it really means a lot to hear readers say that the story rings true to them.
From reader dconnolly: What was your major challenge in writing this debut novel?
Oh, gosh, how much time have you got? It only took me 12 years! I wrote this book in fits and starts, at nights, on weekends, during my precious weeks of hoarded-up vacation every year. I tore the manuscript up and rewrote nearly from scratch three times. Jettisoned whole drafts in the process. With my full-time law job and all the life stuff that gets in the way, whole years went by when I just wasn’t working on the book at all. Finally, one evening, I happened to go to an event where the wonderful journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen was speaking (ironically, it was an event hosted by the women’s committee at my old law firm) and she sagely pointed out the distinction between people who want to write, and those who just want to have written. I suddenly realized that she was describing my predicament. In order to be one of the people who had written, I needed to actually write! Enough excuses about having a full-time law job, being too tired by the time I got home from work, being too busy to embark on a novel, etc. I promptly signed myself up for an “Intro to Fiction Writing” class that met once a week after work. (Like many busy women juggling many balls in the air, I work best under deadline. So if I owed 12 random strangers 20 pages for class Tuesday night, you can bet I’d get those pages out on time.) The pages I wrote for class became the seed for this novel. Over a decade later, I’m thrilled that this story is finally out in the world. Truly, it has been a labor of love.
From Deputy Editor Maura Fritz: In your experience, is the legal profession as a whole as blatantly racist and sexist as depicted in the book? Has the situation improved at all over the years? And is there something about corporate law that may intensify those conditions?
People who have read my book but don’t know me may be surprised to learn I’m essentially an optimist. I actually do think the situation has improved over the years, is continuing to improve all the time. I’d love for things to progress even more quickly, but we’re moving in the right direction. New entering classes in both law schools and law firms are noticeably more diverse—in terms of both race and gender—than back when I was a new lawyer. And recently I’ve witnessed firsthand that law students today know to ask much savvier questions of potential employers—hard questions about diversity and inclusion, about statistics in hiring, retention, partnership, and promotion, about flex time and work-life balance—than we did a decade ago. I find this very encouraging.
A note of clarification, too: I didn’t write the book because of any “blatant” racist or sexist discrimination I experienced at a law firm. That’s just it—much of the exclusion, the reasons people feel isolated and eventually leave instead of sticking it out, is so incredibly subtle, so nuanced, often even completely unintentional, that it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint and therefore even more difficult to resolve.
I don’t think it’s unique to corporate law, either. As a 25-year-old fresh out of law school, having landed in the corporate world, I started seeing some pretty predictable patterns of who among us was succeeding and who was not, who quickly found powerful mentors to take them under their wing, who did not, and it all had to do with how well and how quickly one mastered the art of fitting in to that corporate culture, perfecting all those “soft skills” that are simply not teachable in school. If you didn’t happen to grow up with a background where you’d been exposed to this culture and its unwritten code (and I did not), you had to teach yourself ASAP. I looked around and decided there ought to be some sort of “decoder ring”—a primer or handbook—for those of us who sometimes felt like fish out of water in that very rarefied, alien environment. (And truly, who doesn’t sometimes feel like a fish out of water!) I remember walking into bookstores (bookstores were still plentiful back then), trying to find a book about how to succeed as a young minority woman in corporate America while remaining authentic and true to yourself. Finding none, I decided to try writing that book myself. One of my favorite moments of this whole journey so far was hearing from a young woman at Columbia Law who told me, “Thank you for telling our story.” She’d just finished her summer at a large, Parsons Valentine–like firm, and said, “I wish I’d read your book at the beginning of my summer, rather than toward the end. It would have made me feel so much less alone.” Well, to a first-time novelist, there could be no better compliment than that. It meant so much that she told me that. It made me feel like the 12 years it took me to see this book through were worth it.