In "Opening Belle," A Novelist Tells It Like It Is -- Even For Successful Women On Wall Street

Belle McElroy has three children in Manhattan private schools (at more than $40,000 --- that's after-tax dollars --- per child), a nanny, a dog walker, a housekeeper, a car and an expensive garage, a killer maintenance on a Manhattan co-op and an equally killer monthly rent on a house in the Hamptons.

Belle's husband is a stay-at-home dad, with "three digits in his paycheck and four digits of personal expenses every month."

How do the McElroys afford their .02% life?

Belle works. On Wall Street. Where she's on track to take home $3 million --- just for this year.

Sound good to you? Not to Belle --- she finds her job "intolerable." Not because of the work or the money. Or even her status; she's zoomed from vice president to managing partner at Feigin Dixon in four years. Her problem is the men. They're sexist, entitled, testosterone-drenched frat boys who get away with criminally ridiculous behavior because, when they're not hitting on or denigrating the few women in the office, they make tons of money.

Why does bad behavior rule at Feigin Dixon? Because, when you're hired at Feigin Dixon, like pretty much everywhere on Wall Street, you must sign an employment agreement that keeps you from filing a lawsuit for sexual harassment. That makes the denigration of women no big deal --- when women who have been criminally harassed finally quit, the firm writes large checks. Just like the Kochs polluting sacrifice zones and poisoning the people who live in them, it's cheaper to pay a fine than fix the problem.

At long last some high-level women form the GCC --- the Glass Ceiling Club --- and start sending anonymous email to everyone at the firm. But if you're thinking, "This is 'The First Wives Club,' just set on Wall Street," it's so not. Maureen Sherry worked on Wall Street. She was a managing partner. She's extremely attractive, and it's reasonable to assume that at least a few of her examples of Feigin Dixon's hostile environment aren't fiction. How did she survive for 12 years? Clearly, by being smarter than the men. Working harder. Thickening her skin. And, along the way, becoming, at some level, a man.

A winner on Wall Street --- that's not exactly a compliment. Belle gets caught up in the subprime mortgage scam. She knows she's getting rich off the customers' doomed dreams, but she keeps the cash register ringing. Call that hypocrisy if you like. From here, it looks a lot like realism. And from here that biting honesty is as refreshing as ginger slices on a plate of sushi.

In scene after scene, Belle has spine. As in this confrontation with her boss. It's the end of the year. She's expecting a huge bonus for the huge profit she's made for the firm. Her boss is about to exact a high price for that bonus. In the clichéd version of this scene, Belle would accept the injustice, go home in tears and eat a gallon of ice cream. But as Sherry writes it, Belle is as tough as her boss, no way is she taking shit. Like this:

"I'm doing you a favor and giving you a partner."
"My husband is all the partnership I need," I say evenly. "Giving me a partner on my accounts is a nice way of telling me my income will be cut and it would make no sense for you to cut one of your largest producers because you'd be taking away her motivation to ever produce again. You're too smart to do something like that." He tries to interrupt but I don't let him. "I'm already giving half of everything I make to a trader and some of them pull their weight and many of them do not. If I understand you correctly, you're telling me that I'm now to cut my half into yet another half with some . . . some parasite?"
"You don't even know who I'm thinking of. And honestly, Belle, it's someone who will grow your accounts immeasurably."
"Simon, you're a salesman selling an idea to another salesman. Give it a rest and just let me guess which guy it will be because I know it will be a guy and it will also be someone with no relationships and no accounts. Am I right?"
"Yes, he's a man."
"Simon, a partner implies equality and I can't think of any man who's going to bring an account package equal to mine to the table. It'd be one thing if I was not producing, but I am producing. You gave me the worst accounts years ago, you gave me nothing and I've turned them into something and you still haven't told me which partner you're considering."
"Stone Dennis."
"Simon, you do realize that I'm your biggest producer over the last twelve months. I expect to get paid as such."
"Well, you do have some of the largest accounts so I should hope you would be."
"Yes, but please tell me you remember the important fact that they weren't big accounts when I got them, and that I grew them, and most importantly I can take them wherever I end up working...Stone will bring nothing and take something. It's that simple. You do realize you're cutting my income in half? Nobody gets their income cut like this when they're doing a good job."
"I didn't say it would be a fifty-fifty split."
"Sixty-forty."
"Stone Dennis will get forty percent of my income for doing what?"
"Belle, he will grow the income. You will take sixty percent home of what will be a much larger pot."
"You don't really believe that."
"I do and you're not alone. Many people on the desk are going to be splitting accounts."
"Name them," I say, knowing there won't be one male named.
"It's not your business. This is your business." He plants his fat fingers flat on my spreadsheet of accomplishments, my list of deals and trades executed in the past year and the stuff we've come to talk about.

Reading that, I want to pump a fist and hiss "Yesssss." I want to call Belle's husband and say: "All men marry up. But you, dude, married way up." And I want to see who Belle kicks next.

Then the story goes sideways. There's been no romantic challenge to Belle's clearly unequal marriage; now there is. Belle acutely feels the life/work schism; now she consults a female colleague who pays for sex. And as she careens to the end of the book, subprime mortgages crater her career and Bella must confront her moment of truth: Will she continue to take the legal but fundamentally criminal path of Wall Street or the ethical path of...?

No spoilers here, only sadness. "Opening Belle" is compelling, thrilling, and so much more than the bastard child of "Legally Blonde" and "First Wives Club," but it has the wrong ending: a Reese Witherspoon/Hollywood ending, rich in good motives and good deeds, which may be why "Opening Belle" has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon. The right ending: a much grittier Tina Fey/New York ending, not so rah-rah feminist and granola, which makes me sad that Tina Fey doesn't have the option. (Also sad: that a man --- me --- won't get to write the screenplay.) But hey, for 265 pages of a 336 page book, it was a helluva ride.

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]