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Can a book live up to its billing as “funny and charming” if in the first scene the heroine is whacked in the face by a judge wielding a Supreme Court casebook and then crawls back to her cubicle, blood trickling down one cheek, to wish for death by hemophilia? Can physical and psychological abuse be “wickedly entertaining”? This is the tricky question raised by Chambermaid, a first novel about a Columbia Law grad and ex-TV news producer named Sheila Raj who is trying to survive one truly horrible year as a law clerk for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. The author, Saira Rao, also worked for CBS and Fox News stations, graduated from New York University School of Law, and clerked for a judge on the 3rd Circuit. The buzz on the blogs leaves no doubt that Judge Helga Friedman is the fictionalized counterpart to the real-life Judge Dolores Sloviter. If Chambermaid is a roman � clef, then reading it is a walk in Rao’s footsteps through her clerkship year and (we hope) the catharsis of writing this book. In 269 pages of vicious caricatures, Rao unloads her bad memories. “Funny and charming” may be the goal, but it’s not what we find on the journey. Since early copies of Chambermaid became available, former Sloviter clerks have been weighing in. Some praise her and attack Rao; others agree that Sloviter — in chambers at least — abandons certain niceties of human interaction. Given the rarity with which any ex-clerk will publicly describe “his” or “her” judge in less-than-glowing terms, the mere existence of the latter group tells us something. Rao clearly was — and is still — angry that no one warned her of Sloviter’s reputation. As she said to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Why can’t law clerks talk about the personalities, the cultural aspects, of being a clerk? Why is there a huge blanket of silence over the third branch of our federal government? . . . I just became obsessed with this idea.” Fair question. Of course, law clerks are not the only ones stuck toiling for an ogre of the bar. And Rao’s alter ego lacks much sympathy for lesser beings, finding more reasons to feel for the judge who doles out misery than for the secretaries and security guards being pushed around. The most disappointing moment of the book comes near the end, when Sheila is about to hand off her special seat in hell to the next innocent. Would she agree to stay an extra week so that the next clerk could decompress from the bar exam? No. Does she wink-wink, nudge-nudge warn the newbie, “Hey, clerking can be tough sometimes. If you need a pep talk, I’ve been there. Here’s my cell number”? Nope. She does unto others as she had been done unto. Oh, Sheila/Saira. Even a character who, without blushing, describes her law-school self as “a well-liked editor” on law review, with a “killer” wardrobe, a “darling” apartment, a “fabulous” group of friends, a social life (unlike some people), and a talent for taking law school exams akin to Lance Armstrong’s talent for riding bicycles — even she should grow just enough empathy to briefly help another human being. So does Chambermaid ever achieve “funny and charming”? Actually, yes. Clever lines and amusing scenarios (an elderly judge on an electric scooter is always worth a few chuckles) break through Sheila’s mean-spiritedness and legal snobbery. The very best passages come when Sheila heads home for Thanksgiving. Writing about her fictional self’s well-loved family, Rao cheerfully skewers a marriage-obsessed mom interrogating her daughter’s male friends (“Where are you from? And where did you go to college? You like pork chops, right?”), a sister’s pretentious boyfriend (who is always “this close” to selling a story to The New Yorker), and the whole absurd mess of holiday traditions. And this reader laughs out loud. Rao is reportedly writing again. This time, let’s hope she likes her story.
Elizabeth Engdahl is the national opinion editor at Legal Times . She can be reached at [email protected].

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