There is strength in numbers. Me too. Don’t do that. We hear you.
In whispered tones, women for generations received warnings. How much leg they may show in their pencil skirts, how much cleavage is appropriate, how to earn recognition but not attention (attention only ever means the wrong kind). Women are told how to behave as they traverse the landscape of corporate America. Blend in, don’t stand out, and, whatever you do, don’t cause a scene. You want to be respected, so make sure you are amenable and cute but stern and strong enough that men aren’t tempted by you. For generations, women curated a cautious existence that didn’t upset a balance that was so severely leaning in favor of men it was as if women’s place was on the grounded end of a teeter totter, allowing men to rise into the air. Then, somewhere along the way, women got tired of holding the responsibility. So, they spoke up. Whispers exchanged between confidants became public accounts. More women came forward and a revolution ignited. It felt like the scene at the end of the childhood movie Twitches, when Tia and Tamera Mowery begin shouting names into the air in order to defeat The Darkness. Only, the revolution wasn’t names of people women loved. Women shouted the names of their attackers, and the darkness morphs into a shadow and the battle is hardly over.
Enter Whisper Network by Chandler Baker. A tribute to the #MeToo movement that takes it one step further: the perpetrator dies. Suicide or murder, the reader must wait to find out. The novel centers on four women who work as in-house lawyers under Ames Garret, their company’s General Counsel and resident sexual harasser. Ames is smooth when needed, the kind of boss who wants to explain something so he can get close to you, lean in and ‘accidentally’ grace your thigh with his fingertips, testing the waters. Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Katherine all work under him and all have their own stories to tell about Ames, and they often share those stories in a small room designated as the “pumping room” for new mothers. Sloane is married with a daughter who is being bullied at school by young boys who call her horrible things. Ardie is divorced with a son. Grace is a new mother who is suffering from postpartum depression, something her husband seems oblivious to. Katherine is the new girl, the one who Sloane attempts to protect by adding Ames’ name to the BAD Man List, a spreadsheet circulating in Dallas listing men who have done “bad” things.
When Sloane sees the way Ames looks at Katherine, she knows who his next target is, and she attempts to bring Katherine into her circle and away from Ames. Katherine, for her part, is petrified of being fired and thinks she can outsmart Ames by allowing his advances to a point and then distancing herself. The story that unravels is one we know all too well, which is why Baker’s use of a chorus curates a narrative that is familiar. Each chapter begins with a collective “we” voice. “We fall asleep with laptops that burn our thighs.” The We is the story of what it is to be female in corporate America (and the world more generally). However, two women don’t get much page time even though their inclusion would make the “all women” narrative more complete. I think of Katherine and Cossette, the female attorney who is representing the company in a lawsuit. Cossette is the woman who helps by proving herself to the men. In other words, she tells herself that throwing other women to the wolves will still advance the women’s movement if she gets a seat at the table. In other words, she’s not helping. Katherine gets attention, but not nearly enough. Her actions make the reader question her motive, and her narrative is crucial in a book that dialogues women in the era of Me Too. Further, Rosalita, a cleaning woman in the company’s building, is insightful and acts as a physical representation of the chorus: she sees all, knows more than she lets on, and comments on the fragility of the glass house Ames’ behavior built. Readers also get excerpts of depositions and detective interviews that preview what is to come. The novel is fast-paced and entertaining. It keeps the reader guessing until the final pages.
Filled with stinging one-liners and thoughtful exploration of very different women, Baker’s tale weaves a satisfying mystery and a chilling caution of what happens when people don’t listen. Equal parts Big Little Lies and The Pelican Brief, this novel is a lawyer drama that laments the plight of women in male-dominated industries and explores how women confront the dichotomy of being pro-woman and pro-career, two things that should co-exist but don’t always.