I didn’t technically read Camille Perri’s book The Assistants. I listened to it. I don’t have quotes stockpiled in my trusty “Thoughtful Notebook,” and I didn’t spend time analyzing paragraphs for deeper concepts or hidden meaning. My review is far from academic.
But this book struck me in a way few have.
The writing wasn’t remarkable, and the characters were predictable at best; but the idea behind it felt like it was stolen from my assistant-to-a-powerful-person-in-DC daydreams, hoping a modern day Robin Hood would rescue me from the doom that is Sallie “The Checking Account Drainer” Mae.
The Assistants is about a group of assistants (obviously) who work at a powerful media conglomerate called Titan Corp. The story focuses on one assistant in particular named Tina Fontana, who works for Titan’s CEO Robert Barlow.
Robert Barlow is a politically conservative, overwhelmingly southern, gun totin, tequila drinkin, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and avoid the IRS type of man. But in the way your own grandfather would be. He’s rather endearing, actually.
And after six years as Robert’s assistant, watching as hundreds of thousands of dollars passed through her hands for Robert’s expense reports, Tina is given, through a paperwork error, an unnecessary reimbursement check of almost $20,000.
As it happens, the outstanding balance of her student loans amounted to just that much.
Tina knows it’s wrong, and she feels the weight of her betrayal of Robert, but she still cashes the check and pays off her debt. Other assistants (specifically Emily in the accounting department) learn of her misdeed, and together they develop a plan to falsify Robert’s hefty expense reports to pay off hers and other student loan debt. Why should Tina be the only one to benefit from Titan’s billions? Would Robert even miss a few tens of thousands of dollars?
The details of the story aren’t that important, except to let you know that Tina does get away with it all. And it didn’t upset me. I mean, I was actually rooting for her and Emily.
Throughout the book, we have a chance to hear just what is so unfair about their lives – what drove them to steal so much money in such an obvious way. Their woes are something I am sure many millennials feel on a personal level: watching your boss spend a month’s rent on an apology gift to his wife while you battle the rats in your walls at home; making reservations at restaurants and spas you could only dream of affording yourself as you heat up yet another cup o’ noodles for dinner; knowing your worth to these people is in your ability to fetch coffee and sandwiches despite your Bachelor’s education.
People like to disparage millennials, but it’s been a rough ride for us. We were promised the American Dream, and yet we all are in debt up to our eyeballs. We’re living with roommates, old cars with busted headlights, and eating ramen five days a week while our bosses spend a month’s worth of grocery money on one bottle of wine to impress someone they don’t even like (which we know because…it’s the assistant’s job to know everything).
Our parents owned houses at our age, and we just count our blessings when all the bills are paid. Owning a house? What’s that? We don’t want anything handed to us, but how many of our parents had student loans (who weren’t doctors, at least)? How many of our parents made the same salary (or less) 6 years out of college as they did 6 months out? How many of our parents looked at the world and realized, “Maybe I won’t have it better than mom and dad….maybe I will have it worse…”
This is why Tina does it. And this is why we are rooting for her.
And yet, Tina is wracked with guilt throughout this entire experience. She loves Robert like a father and knows what she does hurts him more than anything else. Hurting him is something she can’t live with. She feels such loyalty to him, and literally hears his voice in her head, reacting to everything she does. She finds it nearly impossible to separate Robert her kind, respectful boss from Robert the CEO of Titan who is worth billions and represents all that is unfair in the world.
This tension – the tension between the unmitigated injustice of it all and the immense loyalty for the powerful and rich person who, yes, is the 1%, but is also her friend – this is what makes the story great.
It explains the millennial who fantasizes about robbing a bank, but it also humanizes the billionaire CEO lucky enough to be born 40 years before us and who earned his money as honestly as any other billionaire has (I mean, don’t they all skirt the IRS?).
No one is the villain.
It’s just all so unfair.
Wouldn’t it be nice if life was like a Disney movie and the solution was as simple as robbing the rich to give to the poor? Where’s that handsome little fox when you need him?