The Assistants by Camille Perri, review by Bruce Jacobs
On the 40th floor of his Midtown Manhattan headquarters, mass communications kingpin Robert Barlow berates his lieutenants, entertains clients and scans an office wall of global news screens. A Texas Longhorn by education and temperament who speaks in bunkhouse wisdom ("Just because a chicken has wings don't mean it can fly"), Robert is a larger-than-life composite of every media gazillionaire in New York City. Outside his door sits his smaller-than-life executive assistant, Tina Fontana, a daughter of Italian grocers in the Bronx who put herself through New York University to earn an English degree and $20,000 in student loan debt. She got the assistant's job because Robert decided at their first meeting that he could trust her--always to put through calls from his former cheerleader wife, to refill the ice bucket for his client-schmoozing Herradura Tequilas, and to fill out his personal expenditure reimbursement forms. She is the focus of Camille Perri's first novel, The Assistants.
As the big boss, Robert's expense reports don't get much scrutiny (Tina prepared one for a $2,500 set of golf clubs he once bought at a country club pro shop because he left his at the hotel), so when she inadvertently submits one under her name and is reimbursed with a check for $20,000 ("this minuscule-to-them-yet-life-changing-for-me amount of money"), she falls into temptation and uses the money to pay off her debt. Emily, another assistant working in the audit department, catches the error and confronts Tina--not with exposure and possible termination for theft, but with a request that she continue gaming the system to skim enough money to pay off her student debt. Soon the head of accounting, Margie, uncovers their scam, but also gives them a pass if they work the same process to pay off her assistant's student loans. And this is how a quasi-altruistic Madoff/Ponzi scheme takes root.
It's great fun, and Perri (former books editor for a magazine and a YA ghostwriter) freewheels enough millennial savvy, parenthetical asides and clever repartee to give Girls a run for its money. She even throws in hottie Kevin "Handsome" in Legal for Tina to obsess over. Some jokes miss, but they keep coming (like a good Simpsons episode), so the misses don't much matter. Never mind that poking fun at executive assistants and their bosses is like kicking dinosaur bones--the era of EAs is all but over since every future CEO kid with a cellphone can auto-load his own calendar and smart-pay his expenses. Nor does Perri ask why young liberal arts majors choose to take on huge student debts and live in one of the country's most expensive cities. Her set-up is too sweet to quibble over details. Rather, we should just sit back and let a smart, funny writer entertain
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.