Page 45 Review by Stephen
"It all feels unreal. I feel like I'm an imposter."
Strangely, that's diligent Frances whose burdens are all too real, rather than her flighty friend Vickie who suddenly finds herself acting the lead character in a silly smash TV series in LA. Or is that really so strange? Career success has struck Frances too, far earlier than tends to happen in her lowly position, and it's threatening to prove unmanageable. Not only that, but the lawyers whom she works for are not without their bizarre and quite extreme quirks.
The signs were there early on, before Vickie moved out.
"When did you get home? What's all this?"
"Work. I'm finishing a memo for a shipping magnate that could mark the end of my career."
The end of her career, before it's even begun: I see what Frances means by "unreal". Vickie is dazed, having slept through the day.
"I say. I have one fantastic hangover!"
"Gee. No kidding. Mr Kowalksi stopped me on my way in. You threw a bunch of crap into his yard last night?"
"God, so that did happen."
Funny, bright yet deeply thoughtful, this eminently quotable and exceptionally authoritative fiction about friendship and those dauntingly big choices that determine your future also doubles as a satire about excessive workloads, executive stress and ultra-competitive back-biting office politics; specifically those in a big-time company of corporate lawyers.
It's softer and more whimsical than Adrian Tomine (though his readers will sure love this too), its content and cartooning a wonderful fusion of Nabiel Kanan, Kevin Huizenga and adult-orientated Andi Watson, right down to the trees.
Vickie and Frances live together in rented accommodation. Frances is so buried at work she has to take a tonne of it home. Vickie is an up-and-coming actress who gets drunk, loses her keys then climbs through Frances's bedroom window to get in. Oh, and she's seeing Peter whom Frances has a more than a passing crush on. Here's more of that conversation.
"Are you angry at me?"
"We can't afford to get evicted."
"You don't even like this apartment."
"I wish you weren't so cavalier about everything."
Or is it that Frances wishes that she could be more cavalier herself?
There's no room for this in Frances's life as a Law Clerk at Shultz and Homberg LLP. She's proven herself popular but even that comes with a price, especially now that her protestant work ethic and reliability has caught the attention of Marcel Castonguay, Head of Bankruptcies. This means even more tasks: almost impossibly last-minute and complex instructions which will make all the difference in winning or losing the most massive multi-million-dollar court cases. Castonguay conducts himself unworriedly with an almost surreal detachment and self-assurance. Others aren't as lucky as Frances. At lunch:
"Hi, I don't think we've met. You're Sonja, right?"
"You don't need to know me."
"Um... What do you do in Bankruptcies?"
"It's my last day. You're replacing me."
Her seniors fare no better. Chris is constantly frazzled on way too much caffeine, sweating away in his suit, shirt and tie, and swearing by a book called 'Zen Workspace'.
"It really works..."
Quite evidently, it doesn't. Nina meanwhile feels constantly threatened by attempts to sabotage her career's trajectory by a right manipulative bastard called Brian. After returning from running a personal errand for Castonguay late at night (bringing the ingredients for a fruit salad to his hotel suite - yes, he permanently resides in a hotel suite) Frances returns to the office to find Nina stretched out on its desk.
"God. This ceiling is unbelievable."
"Nina? What are you doing here?"
"Trying to suppress a panic attack. I normally do the floor but I don't trust the new cleaning crew."
Frances is reasonably sure that she went to university with one of them, and she knows she went to high school with the lad who sold her the bananas. Isn't it funny how our job prospects pan out! And you know what I said about this rat race being competitive? Here's Nina again, still staring upwards.
"Did you know my office only has 28 ceiling tiles?"
"You counted your ceiling tiles?"
"All the Associate Partners do. That ass Brian has 32 tiles. And it's not because he's more competent - Castonguay just likes him better. 32 tiles means more window. It signals you're progressing toward Partnership and profit-sharing. If you're not displaying your hunger, you're dead in the water."
Nina has an air of knowing what she's doing, but she's constantly found stress-puking into baskets. The upshot of all this is that you're never sure whether Frances will survive, either; and, if she doesn't, whether she will jump or be pushed. The pressures are relentless and she can no longer sleep at night. She scours a shop's shelves for audio sleeping aids with Vickie. Tropical rainforest and cascading waterfalls sounds good on the surface, but they'll only make you want to get up and pee. What else is on offer?
"Vermont bonfire... airport waiting area. Country highway with midnight cattle..."
"Gentle psychiatrist,,, crazy lagoon."
Have you ever considered your relationship with work? It constantly crops up here. Castonguay's take is typically pompous.
"Tempus fugit, mors venit.
"It is a powerful transformation when one realises "work / life balance" is fiction. Our work is our very essence. At least that is what my new life coach asserts."
Certainly there seems to be no balance at all for young Frances. Peter and Vickie find time to party so early on she asks Peter...
"Do you like what you do?"
"It's alright... I don't analyze any of it too deeply. I mean... I spend all day building other people's dream homes. It's just a job. It's not who I am."
Everyone seems to have a solid take both on life and work, and they find plenty to say on the subject, but Frances feels she has no such claim or clarity. It's all too fast for any thoughts of her own, and her self-esteem suffers under the shadow of Vickie's extrovert socialising and career success, however ludicrous the role she's landed as a fantastical version of Frances' more serious endeavours. 'Bad Prosecutor' is the most massive hit, becoming the legal firm's water-cooler conversation point - which must be a bit weird when you're privately best friends with the actor involved. This before Vickie began filming:
"Vickie, this character... she's a vigilante District Attorney. Does that even make sense?"
"Sure, why not?"
"It really took five people to write this? "When the scales of justice have no teeth...""
"It's TV, not Hemingway."
"Here... she basically has sex with the criminal she's prosecuting... in the courtroom!"
"You need a lot of hooks in a pilot..."
Frances asks if she's nervous.
"Nah. It's all a game anyway."
Is Vickie as equanimous to it all as she seems? Will Peter (whom Vickie's split from) finally notice Frances instead? More saliently, will repressed and self-doubting Frances finally notice that Peter took note of her yonks ago and actually accept his overtures rather than turn them all down because of the demands of her work? You can only invite someone to share things with you so many times and be rebuffed before it looks like you're pestering, or begging.
"How many things will Peter invite me to before he realises I'm not worth the effort?"
The book is beautifully balanced between gentle, lilting, playful comedy, outright farce, profound matters of kindness, conscience and soul; solitary paths trodden alone even when cramped in a crowd, and that most difficult thing to avoid - comparing your own life to others':
"I'll never measure up to you."
My last of many scrawled note reads, "The importance of friendship, listening - actually hearing - reciprocation, then finally talking things through".
It's possible that you may relate.