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The Glass Ceiling

Monday, February 13, 2017

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Joanna Trollope’s twentieth novel, City Of Friends, has a few interesting elements—the four women friends in the book are in their late forties and all successful working professionals. They take their work seriously and enjoy their success without guilt about neglecting family or personal life. They are always there for one another, and this kind of friendship is rare.

Stacey, Beth, Gaby and Melissa became friends in college, where they were the only four females studying economics. The book seems to say that women can’t have it all—at least not forever. The first life to unravel is Stacey’s, who is unceremoniously fired from her high-level finance job because she asks for flexi-time.  Her mother, who has always been supportive of her education and independence, suffers from dementia and Stacey decides on home care, and her husband Steve agrees to turn their lives upside down so that she can care for her mother, who is reduced to a sad shell of her former vibrant self.

The loss of her job is traumatic for Stacey, not so much for financial reasons but because she cannot imagine not working at a career at which she has excelled. At the same time, her husband gets a promotion and there is some tension between them because of that.

Beth, who is an author and expert on business psychology, is in a relationship with a younger woman, Claire, who takes advantage of her wealth and influence, but walks out on her nonetheless. Gaby is an investment banker with three children and a husband going through a mid-life crisis. The most heartbreaking story is that of Melissa, who has a son, Tim, from brief relationship. The boy’s father casually walks back into his life and Tim is enamoured of a ‘real’ family with his new American partner, two young sons and a daughter from an earlier relationship, leaving his doting mother bereft.

The men in the book are relatively stress free and not all that disturbed by domestic upheavals. Gaby’s husband, for instance, is not too bothered about the romance of his thirteen-year-old daughter with Tim, but Gaby, is worried about her daughter’s wellbeing. Teen flings rarely last and what if her child is hurt by rejection? There is also a bit of complication about Gaby not offering Stacey a job when she well could, because she has hidden something from her friend, and Melissa’s role in getting Stacey’s husband a job.

Everything does turn out well as can be for the friends—through Trollope’s does leave some strands loose—but there is the lingering sadness for what they went through—Stacey and Melissa in particular, because their small tragedies are not of their own making.

The book makes the reader care for the problems the women are facing, because they are so relatable. Which careerwoman has not felt guilty about not giving her family enough time, and which stay-at-home woman has not craved the excitement and glamour of a career.  And which woman approaching her fifties has not panicked about aging.

Beth tells one of her students: “When I went to a reunion of all the women I’d done my own MBA with, there wasn’t a single one who had managed to succeed in combining a career, motherhood and marriage. Lots of them had two out of the three, and it was invariably marriage that was the casualty.” Sadly, even today, most men do not face the same problems.  So even though women’s home-profession dilemma is a bit overdone, it can still power a well-plotted, bestseller.

City Of Friends
By Joanna Trollope
Publisher PanMacmillan
Pages: 336

Excerpt of City Of Friends
The day Stacey Grant lost her job was a Wednesday. Somehow, having Thursday and Fridaystill to go, in a working week, only added to the shock of what had happened, the violent sense of injustice.

How could this be? How could it? She was, after all, a forty-seven-year-old woman who had been – usefully, commendably – at the same company for sixteen years. Sixteen years! Jeff Dodds, the senior manager who had sacked her, was two years her junior and had joined the company five years after her. He was not, Stacey had repeatedly insisted to her colleagues, a bad person. Despite his habit of sending demanding weekend emails and ringing late at night with urgent requests for feedback, he was only really testing their commitment to the company. He was, she pointed out, almost avuncular in his desire to mentor his teams, to offer advice and guidance. That he didn’t understand the realities of their lives was indeed a blind spot, but not a deliberate cruelty. There were worse managers by far, Stacey had told the rest of the team repeatedly, than Jeff Dodds.

So much, she thought now and savagely, for my loyalty. So much for my sense of stupid fair play. So much for doing the decent sodding thing. The eyes of her colleagues were upon her as she packed the contents of her desk into a cardboard box. A few were mildly gleeful – this was a diversion after all – but most looked stricken and sympathetic. Several had tried to speak to her when she came out of the meeting room with Jeff – ‘How,’ her husband Steve had said, when the move to an open-plan office had first been mooted, ‘do you fire someone in front of everyone else?’ – but she had made it plain that if she opened her mouth at all, it would be to scream. Which, after the brief, excited moment of release, would leave her feeling worse than ever. She had shaken her head, and tried to smile, and headed back to her desk as if an imperious purpose awaited her there. So they watched her, covertly, while she collected up the pitiful domesticity of her working life, and dropped it in a box.

By the lifts, a colleague came running to intercept her. He was openly agitated. The top button of his shirt collar was undone, under the loosened knot of his tie.

‘Stacey—’

‘Too late,’ she said, indicating an arriving lift.

He stepped in front of her, barring the way. ‘I shouldn’t have advised you. I shouldn’t have told you to ask him.’ She stared down at the box in her arms. ‘It wasn’t you.’

‘But I advised you . . .’

She didn’t look up. She found she couldn’t. ‘He had other ideas. Other ideas entirely, Tim. All I did, in the end, was give him the chance to implement them.’

‘I don’t understand. He can’t just sack you for asking to work flexibly, he can’t – it’s against the law.’

Stacey sighed. The box in her arms had suddenly become unbearably heavy.

‘He’s not a monster, Tim,’ she said, sadly. ‘He’s just a dinosaur. He’s got a wife to run his domestic life and his own parents are conveniently dead. He just doesn’t have a clue.’

Another lift pinged its arrival.

‘Please, Stacey . . .’

‘I can’t stay. Not another minute. Not after this.’

‘Please let us take it to another level. Please don’t be so impulsive, whatever he said. Please.’

Stacey stepped into the lift. Her handbag was slipping awkwardly off her shoulder. She turned to face the open door. ‘Just be warned,’ she said.

And then the lift doors slid shut across his unhappy face, and she was borne down to the glass and chrome foyer, where Charlie from Ghana was on reception, absorbed in the football results on his smartphone.

At the top of Ludgate Hill, in the new precinct to the left of St Paul’s Cathedral, Stacey found an empty litterbin. Extracting the few framed photographs from the box, she tipped the rest of the contents into the bin: new packets of tights, sundry redundant cables, energy bars in battered packets, a toothbrush, paperclips, pens, old birthday and Christmas cards, a rubber spider someone had left on her computer screen on April Fools’ Day and a small cascade of other objects which represented, that Wednesday afternoon, happier and more certain times. After the box was emptied, she crammed it down on top of everything it had contained, breaking it in order to fit it into the bin. When she was fourteen, she remembered, and her mother’s brother had left the Royal Air Force, she had stood in the yard behind her modest childhood home and watched him burn his uniform in a galvanized metal dustbin.

‘We don’t do nostalgia,’ her mother had said to Steve when he was Stacey’s fiancé. ‘Not as a family. We don’t do regrets. We don’t look back.’ She’d smiled at him. ‘We can’t afford to.’

Stacey put the photographs – Steve, the dog, Steve and the dog, her mother and the dog – in her bag, and walked across to a coffee shop. She bought a regular cappuccino without chocolate on top, and took it to a seat in St Paul’s Churchyard. There was another woman at the far end of the bench, speaking into her phone in rapid Arabic. Stacey set her coffee down and took her own phone out of her pocket. She had deliberately switched it to mute, in order to avoid having to deal with the aftermath of the afternoon’s drama. Sure enough, there were five missed calls and a flurry of texts from her now ex-colleagues. She wouldn’t, she decided, even look at Twitter. Instead she sent Steve a brief, laconic text to let him know that the meeting was over – ‘I’m out. Tell you later.’ – and then scrolled to her Favourites section. She stared at the list. Steve, Mum, Beth, Melissa and Gaby. All of them but Mum knew that she was seeing Jeff Dodds today. Mum didn’t know because Mum was the reason the interview was necessary. Mum would be furious, livid was her usual word, that Stacey had asked for the unheard of, had asked for flexible hours, had asked for a specific non-linear period of working, had asked, in short, for a form of employment that contravened the accepted model of the white male competitive system.

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Dr. Rajan B. Bhonsle, M.D. (Bom)
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