Even without the recent in-depth New York Times report about working conditions at Amazon, the online marketing behemoth at the center of Elisabeth Egan’s “A Window Opens” would have begged comparisons with it. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a consumer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently — if the Times report is to be believed — expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.
As “A Window Opens” begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. That all changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.
The position at Scroll sounds, at first, ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager–slash–Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon-based” and to mouth tenets like “[w]e don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”
Although the new job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice “misse[s] the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, the first PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities as both a longtime New Yorker and a mother.
That’s where Egan, books editor at Glamour magazine who briefly worked for Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over the TV show “House Hunters” before firing off conflicting e-mails to Alice’s work account and her private Gmail.
Likewise, her colleagues — all younger and apparently childless — are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.
With its sharp, perceptive humor, this novel plays like “The Devil Wears Prada” for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But “A Window Opens” lacks that earlier bestseller’s moment of realization — that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve — “her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin” — we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “[b]efriend, then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.
Egan has tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “lean in” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at 368 pages, “A Window Opens” is a little too long for what is simply a humorous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better. After all, as Alice learns, “Winners Get It Right.”
A WINDOW OPENS
By Elisabeth Egan
Simon & Schuster, 370 pp., $26
Clea Simon is the author of 19 novels. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.