The reviewer is a Washington writer and former publisher of Women's Work magazine.
In "Women's Work," which won for Anne Tolstoi Wallach a record price for a first novel, Domina Drexler is a New York advertising agency creative director who is partial to tight velvet jeans, heavy Irish sweaters and silver disco shoes for the office. At age 37, she earns $76,000 a year, plus bonuses and profit-sharing, lives in a fabulous Manhattan apartment, has two teen-agers in private schools and enjoys the housekeeping services of a woman named Leota. This all may sound very cushy, but her male peers at Potter Jackson boast senior vice president titles, and have Domina by $20,000 a year.
She has badgered her boss, Brady Godwin, to remedy the situation, but Brady is a 60ish throwback, nostalgic for the days when the ladies of the agency worked strictly on fashion, food and cosmetics and took dainty lunches at their desks, since the dining room was off-limits. He pacifies the feisty Domina with glamorous assignments while postponing her promotion.
Then executive VP Roe Rossen taps Domina to share his bed and also his prestigious Ford account, specifically ads for a new model automobile, the Blossom. It is at this point that things start to get a bit too cute. Harrell Barber, Ford's top man on the Blossom, is black. This completes the triumvirate of "good-guy" lead characters, who all just happen to be minorities: female Domina, black Harrell and Jewish Roe.
Soon, Harrell is insulted racially by Domina's Alabama-born staff artist, and Domina tries to fire her. When Domina can't make it stick (the artist has been sleeping with the personnel director), she is determined to start her own agency.
Roe decides he'll help her escape her office worries. "Domina Drexler needs me. And I need her. Only, not the way she thinks. Not with her flying all over the country, out late with clients, knocking herself out. I need what she can give me. She'd understand everything I do, the perfect backup." He approaches Domina: "Marry me. I'll take care of you . . . let me take you away from all this."
Domina knows a moth-eaten line when she hears one. Roe wanders off to reassess his strategy; when he thinks he's got it right, he returns, and Domina again sends him packing, but not before he manages to get in the ultimate put-down of the corporate woman: "Maybe what they say about you is true. Maybe you do have b----."
Thus, er, equipped, Domina gutsily marshals several contracts, including a key chunk of Ford's business, thanks to empathetic Harrell. She crashes an agency board meeting to give a speech for equal opportunity and dangle her new clients before them.
In the wake of her resignation and exit, Roe is stunned to hear the chairman of the board himself complain: "It's the times we live in. Used to be a damn fine business for a man, decent people making a good living for their wives, families. Now anyone can get in -- blacks, women, Jews, anyone." Well, by golly, Potter Jackson is no place for Roe either. "What's taken me so long, he kept thinking, why haven't I seen what they are? . . . Blast them. Tell them they're finished, dinosaurs, too dumb for today's world. No . . . Women, Jews, their minds seal up. Words have no effect. Actions. Act. Get out. Now." And he runs to Domina with a merger proposal of a different sort.
"Women's Work" is a book whose style interferes with the story, such as it is. Dialogue and reflections are clumsily alternated. On two randomly selected pages, for example: "If I had any style, I'd do it, he thought." "I've waited for this so long, he thought." "Get hold of yourself, she thought." "Cigarette, quick, she thought." "Dear Lord, she thought." Dear Lord, indeed.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspects of "Women's Work" are its premises about men, women and relationships. Women in business can relate to Domina's attempts to fit into the male-dominated sphere, "catching up to meetings these guys forgot to invite her to, struggling through lunches filled with the sports talk men use to shut women out, ignoring the snickers that erupted when she asked a question about anything technical."
But in Wallach's world, if men are a pain in the office, at home they are simply troublesome. Roe's former mistress, Lolly, bored with her stockbroker husband, contemplates divorce: "I manage now, don't I? I take care of everything for the kids, the apartment. Divorced, I could go home on a night like this and cuddle up in an old nightgown with the kids, watch late television, the old movies Bill hates because . . . I won't come to bed." Even ancient fashion consultant and career-blazer Belle Rosner, whose husband died in the early days of their marriage, remembers that her "first emotion was relief. Now she could manage everything, use her time exactly as she wanted."
An equally unfortunate message reinforces the familiar complaint that "women want it both ways." Domina rages that "I don't want to be special because I'm a woman," yet she goes out of her way to flaunt corporate mores: her costumes are in no way the equivalent of men's business attire. She freely uses vulgarities and profanities with her boss. She cries when she loses. And she is late for meetings with her superiors. Wallach seems to want us to admire Domina's independence; instead, her character comes across as lacking savvy. You know Wallach has lost you when Domina's boss tells himself that anyone would be forgiven for not promoting such a woman, and you find yourself agreeing with the old bigot.
With the Equal Rights Amendment effort and the entire women's movement suffering from an image of working against men rather than with them, "Women's Work" itself is a throwback, feeding the perception that the women's movement preaches polarizing generalizations: All WASP males are bad, ethnics are good, homemakers without paying jobs are lazy, and career women have a monopoly on personal fulfillment.
Thanks, Anne. We needed that.