The Wolf of Wall Street meets his Little Red Riding Hood in Maureen Sherry’s debut novel, “Opening Belle.” What’s Red got in her basket? Knives sharpened during the years that Sherry worked at Bear Stearns. And what big teeth she has! Every chapter is stuffed fatter than a tycoon’s billfold with details scurrilous and sexist.
Sherry’s protagonist is Isabelle “Belle” McElroy, who at 36 is already a director at Feagin Dixon. But she hasn’t grown immune to the rampant chauvinism and even more rampant greed built into her livelihood. At the office holiday party, when a peer puts his hand down her skirt, Belle thinks, “I’m disgusted at myself for not walking away, for putting up with this stuff just to talk business.”
Perhaps Belle has never gotten over being the working-class girl from the Bronx who got into Cornell. Or perhaps she’s never gotten over the WASP scion, Henry Wilkins, with whom she fell in love while still an undergraduate. Even 15 years later, married with three young children, Belle nurses a longing for the one that got away.
As the 2007 bonus season looms, Belle’s competence lands her back in Henry’s sights. He’s now second in command to her biggest client and, as such, is now Belle’s client. Unfortunately for her mostly unemployed husband, Henry has an empty position for Belle to fill, one that involves a secret apartment stocked with Armani and diamonds instead of sweatpants and pop beads.
Another challenge comes from her female colleagues at Feagin Dixon, especially the one sending emails under the moniker “Metis” (referring, in this context, to someone not of mixed ancestry, but of mixed motivation as an executive and a woman). Metis muckrakes with glee, reminding the distaff side of the company that “regardless of how things have been done in the past,” women should not continue to tolerate “childlike” behavior from their male counterparts.
How will Belle, our most un-Disney heroine, manage all this? We’re supposed to know, from the way she totes downmarket toys for her kids in the opening chapter, that “Opening Belle” means more than the trading day’s gong. At times, the earnest, I’m-just-aworking-mom schtick grates, but it becomes clear that Belle has as much to learn about herself and her family as most of us do about the subprime mortgage crisis that Sherry explains so articulately.
The women in this funny, relevant and often shocking novel don’t win or lose. They play the game — or they opt out. Variety reports that Reese Witherspoon plans to star in a film version of “Opening Belle,” and the appeal of that role is obvious. This is a heroine who knows that sometimes keeping the wolf from the door winds up being more important than exposing him. Even if your own life is far from a fairy tale, “Opening Belle” will allow you to laugh, learn and maybe even lean in — to hug your own family a little closer.
Bethanne Patrick is the author of the forthcoming collection “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Maureen Sherry
Simon & Schuster. 338 pp. $25