Books, especially first novels by new novelists in search of an audience, are marketed with a singular purpose. In order to attract sales and readership, they are classified into easily recognizable categories, quick reference points for both readers and reviewers who can quickly judge these newest books against their as easily recognized peers, and then commend, condemn, or ignore them.
Opening Belle was the subject of one such marketing ploy, aided and advanced in a Sunday op-ed piece by the novelist published by the accommodating New York Times. But instead of promoting this first novel by Maureen Sherry, a former salesperson writing as an insider about Wall Street, the ploy may have backfired by relegating the real merits of this book to second—or third—place. Few readers will see past the advertised purpose—an expose of the apparent and rampant sexual discrimination on Wall Street—to appreciate the novel’s realism: an all-too-rare description in the rarified realm of contemporary American fiction of a real workaday world that so many (including one Democratic presidential candidate) roundly condemn as demonic and immoral.
Love of money may be the root of all evil and Wall Street may embody the worst of American culture. Those whom Wall Street attracts—of both genders—may be selfish, self-absorbed, and self-promoting, though those adjectives can easily be applied to many other careers and professions. Perhaps Wall Street ruins lives: the lives of those whom it employs and eventually gnaws, and the lives of those affected by its outsized influence on the economy that, in turn, fuels America’s prosperity or (at present) her despair. How easy it is to categorize and then vilify the financial masters of the universe as the causes not only of economic stress but also of other, wider national failures.
Into this morass of seething and primitive anger marches Isabelle McElroy (known as Belle), the wealthy, sexual, and intelligent protagonist of this new novel. Belle is very good at her job. She sells financial instruments at an investment bank to institutional clients, including the unstable toxic variety of pooled mortgages and derivatives that readers of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (and recent moviegoers) glibly say led inexorably and directly to the financial collapse of 2008, from which this nation is still reeling.
We have come a long way from Tom Wolfe’s 1980s depiction of wealth and power in The Bonfire of the Vanities, a book that now seems as quaint and obsolete as those enormous first computers. Turning to cinema, the Gordon Gekkos of the world—and that other version of a rabid self-absorbed financier depicted in the more recent film The Wolf of Wall Street—are one-dimensional and farcical creations compared to Belle, who must contend with the complexities of her own thoughtfulness and desires while attempting to also balance the demands of her clients and children. Reese Witherspoon has reportedly optioned Opening Belle and a movie is in production. The condensation of the book into a palatable ninety-minute depiction, timed and paced for the movie or home theater, may satisfy the contemporary artistic and public needs to simplify and objectify complex real subjects.
But the emotions in this book are honest, real, and pervasive, and Belle is not a simple character. Her everyday life, or should I say her “lives” (including her life in Manhattan, her travels, and her purchases), will awe those who shop at anonymous strip malls or spend time swiping away at images of exotic places or gala events on their smartphones.
Curiously, in contrast to and despite its basic marketing ploy—the emphasis upon loathing, sexual groping, and even Belle’s own wanting—this novel is a celebration of this nation. It embodies that old (and perhaps still underrated) promise: the opportunity to pursue happiness, though there are no guarantees of success. Credit the Founding Fathers, a few gentlemen from Virginia and Massachusetts; and especially Alexander Hamilton, who was born illegitimate in the Caribbean and later as first Treasury Secretary ensured that America, though a struggling nascent nation, would honor its debts. Hamilton, too, lived on Wall Street; Belle, who would have been unable to vote until 1920, is a direct descendant and beneficiary of that national enterprise—and she knows it.
Imagine the silence if Bernie Sanders admitted that capitalism was a necessary foundation of democracy. Imagine the silence if Sanders admitted that liberty is specious without a sound and active economy, and that banks are also to be commended for fueling the capital markets. That confused old senator embodies as extreme and narrow a view as any zealot. Belle must contend, in this debut novel, with narrowness and zealotry of another kind but, ultimately, the law (a threatened sexual discrimination lawsuit) extracts a hefty cash settlement from the new owners of the investment bank where she once worked. (That bank, like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, has imploded.) The settlement then funds the creation by Belle and her women friends and former colleagues of a new boutique investment bank. Funny, isn’t it, how the pendulum (and the money) continuously swings from one side to the other in the U.S.? That may be the best definition of opportunity and prosperity.
This book is worth reading, not as a story of continued vulgarity, of sexual aggression and inequality, of suppression and litigation, but as a rarely published glimpse into a real working environment, into the working and personal lives of both genders in the strata of Wall Street. Zealots will say this is all wrong: manifest greed run amok again. Instead, perhaps, it is further proof of our unique manifest destiny on this bountiful continent. Maureen Sherry has written forcefully and creatively about success. It is time to stop whining and complaining, and to recognize that America is great because of its industrious citizens, even those in finance. Real writers—other insiders—must now do their part. I look forward to novels from Pharma and FinTech, from Aviation and Agribusiness. And to other Wall Street novelists.
Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets. He also practices law on Wall Street. His essay on the award of the T.S. Eliot Prize in London to Sharon Olds, an American poet, first published in The University Bookman, was recently republished in Contemporary Literary Criticism in the UK.