Fiction: ‘Opening Belle’ by Maureen Sherry

February 22, 2016

"Opening Belle" by Maureen Sherry; Simon & Schuster (352 pages, $25)


If you’ve seen the film "The Big Short" and noticed that it was all about the men who profited from the financial crisis of 2007-10, you may have wondered where all the Wall Street women were. Sure, there was that Goldman Sachs saleswoman and a couple of others, but most female roles fell into the category of exotic dancer or somebody’s wife.

You’ll find the women of Wall Street here, in the diverting "Opening Belle," which is told from the perspective of women trying to make a living in a sexist environment. Obstacles are constantly placed in their path, distracting them from a housing bubble that’s about to burst.

Title character Belle is a managing director of a financial firm ripped from the "Animal House" playbook. Obscene nicknames, childish pranks, lunchtime bordello trips and demeaning sexual harassment are all in a day’s work.

Maureen Sherry’s comic novel unspools like a movie, a quality apparently not lost on actress Reese Witherspoon. According to promotional material for the book, the "Legally Blonde" star optioned "Opening Belle" "just days after the manuscript was submitted to Hollywood." It seems a screenplay is underway. I can just hear Cyndi Lauper’s version of "Money Changes Everything" on the soundtrack.

Belle’s world centers around a sprawling apartment on the West Side, an annual bonus of millions of dollars, a husband, three children and a demanding job that often requires long hours. As if she weren’t busy enough, Belle embarks on an emotional affair with her ex-fiancé, Henry, when he becomes her biggest client. He says he doesn’t cheat on his wife — he just needs this attachment to Belle and to their shared past.

Belle’s husband, Bruce, has become a stay-at-home father but doesn’t seem proud of his choice. He spends lavishly on himself. Back when they were dating, Bruce seemed so down-to-earth compared to the manboys she works with. But it turns out Bruce is motivated by such a sense of entitlement that he considers work beneath him.

Belle meets with a friend who provides perspective: They have achieved success because they know how to be one of the guys. She echoes a theme Belle encounters when she and the other token women in her firm are invited to lunch with the big boss. When Belle lays out some of the complaints about how women are treated, no one else chimes in. His response: Get over it. Adapt to the tribe or leave.

When some of the firm’s women form a secret Glass Ceiling Club, it fans Belle’s flame of idealism about ways to make Wall Street a better place for women. Meanwhile, she is blind to how she undercuts herself and to how she keeps grabbing the short end of the stick and holding on for dear life.

Belle can’t or won’t set boundaries or delegate. One night, everyone is asleep in the filthy apartment when she comes home, and instead of going to sleep, she spends most of the night cleaning. Belle cuts up fresh fruit into little bags and tucks them in the refrigerator because she is the classroom snack mom for school the next day.

Sherry worked on Wall Street for 12 years and was a managing director at Bear Stearns. She quit to pursue writing and earned a master’s of fine arts degree. She has four children.

So presumably, art imitates life to some degree in this book, but it’s hard to believe many of the events are part of anyone’s reality.

In one of the cheesier passages, Henry and Belle notice a stunning dress in a store window. It is beautiful, something Belle could have worn before three pregnancies, back when Henry dumped her. She returns later to try the dress on. The dress is so tight that she gets trapped in it. The saleswoman is deaf to her cries for help, so Belle ends up calling Henry, who is of course available to race to the dressing room and rescue this damsel from a dress.

The scene stands out among several that seem written for Hollywood, possibly for fun, but they read like they’re more for profit. Not that there’s anything wrong with a woman making a living, of course.




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