By Helen Wan, St. Martin’s Press, 294 pages, $25.99
To Mark Twain has been ascribed the saying, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” Whether his aphorism was uttered tongue-in-cheek might be debatable; that it would never find its way into a “statement of principles” at Parsons Valentine & Hunt LLP, the fictional white-shoe law firm in first-time author Helen Wan’s “The Partner Track” is anything but, as there the measure of success for aspiring young associates is defined by a singular, objective achievement: partnership.
And while Twain’s “confidence” component may indeed be an essential ingredient in achieving that goal, at Parsons Valentine, one would far more likely encounter a motto in line with that spoken by the noted sage of the Star Wars saga, Yoda who, of success, opined “Do or do not. There is no try.”
This fact is not lost on the book’s protagonist, Ingrid Yung—”Ingrid” to the firm’s partners and “Yung” to her peers—the brilliant, 30-something, Asian American corporate associate who is in her ninth year at the firm and up for partnership consideration.
Like most such firms, Parsons Valentine has an unofficial “up or out” policy when one reaches Ingrid’s stage, and the pressure she is under as her partnership fate will be decided over the next several months is palpable. We are introduced to Ingrid at The Jury Box, the firm’s dining room where partners and associates congregate for lunch and, ostensibly, to socialize.
In fact, one quickly learns that “leisurely lunches” are a fiction at Parsons Valentine, and as with every other aspect of law firm life, the lunchroom is awash with politics. Ingrid and her colleagues are painfully aware of this, and that even such seemingly innocuous decisions as what to eat, where to sit and with whom to converse over a bagel—decisions which, by the way, are not always even within the control of the participants— are the careful observations of the ever-watchful partners, decisions fraught with the potential for professional disaster for the careless or simply, the “unlucky.”
And for Ingrid, one of only a handful of associates to survive this long at the firm (not to mention being one of even fewer associates of color there), the stakes could not be higher for an overachieving, high school Valedictorian, Ivy League educated only child of Taiwanese first-generation immigrant parents. Wan has chosen to introduce her novel in a setting that to the casual observer belies the everyday tensions and stresses that soon become apparent at Parsons Valentine, thereby placing the reader in a wonderfully perpetual state of unease from the outset; one can never be quite certain of what is coming next.
For Ingrid Yung, failure is definitely not an option, though its possibility is real and ever-present. Nowhere is this more evident than in her dealings with Marty Adler, the firm’s polished yet stern senior partner whose stature derives from his rain-making prowess. Adler recruits Yung for work on a high-stakes, time-sensitive corporate deal, the success or failure of which could, and likely will, determine her partnership fortunes. This proves to be challenging to Ingrid on several levels, as she is forced not only to navigate the shifting terrain between professional collegiality and protocol—associates and partners may “call” each other by their first names at Parsons Valentine but the “status” line is always there, not always visible until it has been crossed—but also to endure the racial and stereotypical slights from both clients and her peers, all while trying desperately to meet a pressing deadline.
This dilemma is typified by an exchange that occurs between Ingrid and a high-value corporate client at an initial meeting where the client mistakes Ingrid’s role for that of her younger, white male paralegal and beckons her to fetch refreshments for the group, thereby testing her powers of composure to the limit.
While clearly not wanting to focus exclusively on the challenges to success that emanate from racial and ethnic prejudice, the novel aptly makes the point that life as an associate at a large, prestigious law firm has daunting universal challenges for anyone of any background who seeks to pursue that path—neither does Wan shy away from them.
To the contrary, in highlighting the issue, she deftly segues between Ingrid’s experiences both at and away from Parsons Valentine. At one point, for example, we see Ingrid respond to an overt “you people all look the same” ethnic slur from an uncouth street vendor in a manner more reminiscent of a Robert DeNiro “You talking to me?” “Taxi Driver” character than your stereotypical gentile corporate lawyer.
In another instance, we are provided a flashback to a time where, as a child, she witnesses firsthand the slight that her father, a respected university professor in Taipei, Taiwan, experiences at the hands of a surly doorman upon the family’s visit to a friend who resides at a swanky Fifth Avenue high rise apartment building, where her father was harshly and disparagingly assumed to be the Chinese food delivery man.
Wan skillfully draws upon these and other experiences to give us an insight into Ingrid’s struggles between wanting to arrive at a place distant and relatively safe from the vulnerabilities caused by the painful indignities that have (and continue to) touch her and her family’s lives, and her questioning of the ultimate values of her pursuits and their potential costs to her integrity.
While “The Partner Track” is a novel whose characters and events are a total and complete work of fiction, that Wan is herself a corporate lawyer with some exposure to the world about which she writes provides the reader with valuable and nuanced insights into life at a large New York City firm. Moreover, that she is also a Chinese American female and has chosen to write her book in the first-person narrative, further gives the novel a biographical “feel,” (at least, to this reader), thereby measurably enhancing its fictional realism.
As such, Wan’s foray into fiction writing is to be applauded, not least for exposing the reader only to that which is absolutely necessary to an understanding of the world of corporate legal practice while avoiding extraneous references to nonessential details that would add little, if anything, to the story line.
Indeed, The Partner Track will likely resonate with anyone who has ever confronted the challenge of trying to calibrate the right mixture of worthy pursuits, happiness, accomplishment and retained integrity into a workable and personalized formula for success.
Victor Olds, a former partner at Holland & Knight, is first deputy commissioner at the New York City Department of Investigation.