Review – The Assistants

Summary – Tina Fontana is the hapless but brazen thirty-year-old executive assistant to Robert Barlow, the all-powerful and commanding CEO of Titan Corp., a multinational media conglomerate. She’s excellent at her job and beloved by her famous boss—but after six years of making his reservations for restaurants she’d never get into on her own and pouring his drinks from bottles that cost more than her rent, she’s bored, broke, and just a bit over it all.

When a technical error with Robert’s travel-and-expenses report presents Tina with the opportunity to pay off the entire balance of her student loan debt with what would essentially be pocket change for her boss, she struggles with the decision: She’s always played by the rules. But it’s such a relatively small amount of money for the Titan Corporation—and for her it would be a life-changer . . .

I must admit, I dived into the book knowing only two things: it was about assistants, and the assistants were some very small cogs in a massive corporation. While I did glance at the synopsis to gauge my interest on the subject matter, I completely forgot about the actual premise when I began reading this book.

Initially, I could not help but chortle in public as I read through Tina’s life about expense forms and all her other random tasks as an assistant—the assistant to the man of the Titan Corporation—because it rang so true on a superficial level. I knew exactly what she was talking about when filling out all the mundane forms, quickly skimming through all the expenses and mentally calculating what she (or any other sane human who is not rich) could do with that money instead. Or even just figuring out what people do with their money. It was a completely tongue-in-cheek way of looking at how assistants operate, and I wholeheartedly embrace the concept at first. I also couldn’t help but be impressed with how the idea of student debt—a very relevant and real struggle here—was vital to the plot.

My delight escalated as I realized that two assistants—Tina, the protagonist, and Emily Johnson—were actually going to attempt to fleece their employers (the people that require their assistants?) by duplicating expense reports to pay off their student loans. Ridiculous idea along with the little problem that it was completely illegal, but the farfetched and daring premise captivated me. I wanted to see how this two-woman crew planned to embezzle their company for several (tens) of thousands for their own benefit due to their paltry salaries for a better life and how they would outwit everyone else in their company. This was the classic David vs Goliath trope, and I wanted Emily and Tina to succeed even as I completely acknowledge that what they were doing was very wrong.

As it turns out, their nefarious scheme of duplicating expense reports quickly roped in a lot more people. More specifically, many other assistants who were also working at Titan Corporation. While I won’t go into the details of how the duo kept getting discovered by somebody else for their pet project, it did become ridiculous quickly for two reasons. First of all, this was a pretty farfetched scenario and if one starts injecting reality in this skewed story/world, the jig would be up almost immediately. Secondly, out of all the assistants that eventually figured out this secret none of them believed that they should turn in the ring of assistants in. Everyone was alright with this scheme because apparently the corporation just treats all the assistants that badly. By the umpteenth time that a bunch of other assistants figured out the secret and wanted in, instead of feeling sorry for them I just kept rolling my eyes at the whole fiasco because it was more than ridiculous, it was impossible. Everyone should have been fired and charged with criminal offenses long ago, since the more people in on the secret, the easier it was for the secret to leak. By the end of the book it seemed every assistant at Titan Corporation (and according to the book there are plenty of assistants, almost upward to three figures) was aware of this cause and contribute to it somehow.

The other biggest problem was that I realized halfway through the book was that Perri picked the wrong protagonist; instead of chronicling from Tina’s POV, she should have told the story from Emily’s POV. Emily was the far more interesting character of the duo, and it was a pity that she was shoved aside for Tina’s very minimal character development and dull romantic subplot. The romantic subplot actually took up a lot of the middle of the book, and again I found myself rolling my eyes (to the point where I had to stop since otherwise my eyes would fall out) at the couple because it did not add anything to the main plot. Tina was a much weaker character who was supposed to be the rational one of the duo, but she always was persuaded by someone else that she should continue with this scheme.  Tina also did not bother to analyze any outcomes and if she (along with the gaggle of assistants) should take any precautions to ensure that their secret will remain safe.  She essentially was the person who would cringe at the ridiculousness of everything and acted as if it was “above” her, but then she was the one that started it all! (Albeit with some encouragement aka blackmail by Emily) At least Emily embraced the ridiculousness of the premise for all it is; plus I really enjoy the various aspects of her character. As a minor con artist, the bitch with a heart of gold, and a daredevil risk taker Emily launched the initial embezzlement to new heights.

Aside from the duo, there was really no characterization or differentiation between any of the many assistants in Titan corporation. They all basically had the same backstory – girls (apparently no male could ever be an assistant) who took the first (and perhaps only) job that gave an offer due to the awful economy and was completely delighted to help punish their bosses in any way possible as revenge. Also, most of the assistants had chosen to study in fields that was not completely related to media or business at all (Titan Corporation amongst other things dabbled with media—to be honest I don’t recall and it didn’t really matter) and had thousands and thousands of dollars of student debt. Well, that’s one way of looking at the assistants.

Still, Perri did tackle plenty of very real issues in such a lighthearted book—of course, in a very lighthearted manner. Higher education tuition skyrocketing faster than the speed of light (well, it feels this way) leading to five or six figure student debt, the lack of jobs once these students graduate with a degree from their post-secondary institute leading to taking random jobs, and people stuck in jobs while aimlessly drifting about without a real plan for their career are all very real issues today. And it does not require a rocket science to figure out how people stuck in these camps are coping and how the novel tries to respond about these issues. I always think that it is important for these issues to be present because these are struggles that so many people in their twenties are thirties are facing, and it is wonderful to see that literature is also trying to acknowledge and address this issue.

I just hope that eventually there will also be meatier selections in the market, since this is more of a fluffy beach read than anything else.


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