Two recent novels, On the Floor by Aifric Campbell and Bond Girl by Erin Duffy, take place in different decades, but their female protagonists have much in common. Both pound large quantities of alcohol and wake up with throbbing hangovers; they call their co-workers things such as The Grope, Pigpen, and Pie Man. And they live by the same credo: “There is NEVER a good reason to cry in the office.” They’re the new heroines of women’s fiction, and they work in finance.
The last generation of popular novels about women and work featured needier characters with jobs in meagerly paid, stereotypically female industries. There was fashion magazine underling Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada, publishing house lackey Bridget Jones, and, most famously, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, a sex columnist. These women scraped by, dating wealthy men to finance their well-dressed lives. Ten years later we live in an America in which women make up the majority of the workforce, Beyoncé assures us that we run the world, and Yahoo! (YHOO) Chief Executive Officer and ex-Googler Marissa Mayer can good-naturedly quip, “I’m not a girl at Google (GOOG). I’m a geek at Google.” Different times call for different chick-lit archetypes.
Geri Molloy, a 28-year-old Irish upstart, is the protagonist of the riveting On the Floor, which takes place in a London bank called Steiner’s in 1991. Geri is among the star bankers at Steiner’s—its most successful client, a fickle Hong Kong hedge funder named Felix Mann, will work only with her. She made $872,678.14 in 1990, enough to roll her eyes at colleagues’ assumptions that she’ll ditch her career once she has kids. “You’re only as good as your last trade and since when was I a feminist anyway?”
Geri is already near the top of the workplace heap as On the Floor begins, and Alex Garrett spends most of Bond Girl working her way up in bond sales at a Wall Street bank, Cromwell Pierce, in the mid-Aughts. On Alex’s first day of work, her intimidating boss tells her, “You’re one of two women in my group, and if that dynamic is a problem for you, then take the train to Midtown and see if the broads at Condé Nast have a job for you, because I won’t.”
Although Alex and Geri pride themselves on being able to withstand the constant thrum of sexism, their narratives include a familiar lady novel plot device: They’re both laid low by financier boyfriends. Alex’s pain is mostly injured feelings, whereas Geri’s career is nearly dashed by a selfish ex who uses her attachment to him to steal a deal from under her nose.
By the end of their respective stories, both Alex and Geri are so sick of being mistreated by their vile male bosses that they leave the industry, riding off into the unemployed sunset. Geri is in much better shape to do so: She’s made millions and decamps for the States to start anew. Alex resigns her position at Cromwell during the 2008 recession with no future prospects, before she had moved very far up the ranks.
Like their heroines, Campbell and Duffy are financial-services vets, and their books are drawn from experience and set in the time period in which they worked: Campbell was the first female managing director on the London trading floor of Morgan Stanley (MS), and Duffy spent a decade in fixed-income sales at Merrill Lynch (BAC). They’re soon to be joined by another former banker, Laura Hemphill, whose novel, Buying In, will be out in November and promises to tackle “what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.”
In interviews, both Campbell and Duffy insist that they loved finance, and their intent is not to vilify the industry. They left for different reasons. Campbell went back to work after a short maternity leave and soon had a nervous breakdown, ending up in a psychiatric hospital for nine weeks. Duffy was laid off during the downturn and decided to write a novel while unemployed. Campbell has said that her postpartum depression stemmed from the irreconcilable demands of work and motherhood, and her experience might provide clues as to why these books end with women opting out. Perhaps in another 10 years we can look forward to a chick-lit heroine who ends up running the show instead of running away.