Office Romance

I’m always surprised there aren’t more novels written about office life. It is such a seething microcosm of contemporary culture, rife with tensions and politics and power play. At the same time, though, its interest is mostly superficial. When I left office life after lasting a mere year in it, I left it for academia and had to endure a certain amount of sneering about exchanging ‘real life’ for ivory towers. In my experience this was nonsense. In the university, academics worked extremely hard with passion and commitment because they were following the ideals of their hearts and minds. In my old office, grown-up schoolchildren were given pay packets and left mostly to get on with as little work as they could get away with. Of course this was what made office life interesting; the people in it were paid to be there all day, every day, and that made for a fair amount of time to fill in creative ways, especially if work didn’t much come into it. I should point out that my view is jaundiced because the company I worked for was less than inspiring; but having just finished, and loved, Lucy Kellaway’s novel In Office Hours, it strikes me that not so much has changed since I was on the nine to five. Given that Kellaway is apparently a journalist with a regular column in The Financial Times, she knows of what she speaks.

In Office Hours is the story of two fated affairs that take place in the London offices of Atlantic Energy, a global oil company. While economic meltdown occurs out in the wider world, emotional meltdown happens on the private level to Stella Bradberry, a mid-forties executive carrying the burden of female representation at top management level, and Bella Chambers, a young, single mother overlooked and underwhelmed in her PA role. Bella’s relationship is the more conventional of the two, as she falls for her fattish, balding married boss because he actually appreciates the work she does and sees special qualities in her. Stella, however, risks her career and her own marriage on a prickly graduate trainee, Rhys, who, after an initially rocky start, seems genuinely admiring of her abilities. There’s a lot of sharp satire of the position of women in the workplace, which seemed all too plausible to me. Secretaries are still regarded as a sub-human species, interchangeable, shunted about from place to place, their often impressive skills rarely valued by those in management. Whilst the women who do make it to the top are expected not only to do their job, but also to act as flag wavers for their gender, while their behaviour towards other female colleagues is placed under excessive scrutiny. Stella is a fascinating case study of a female workaholic who pushes herself precisely because she is scared of pressure and responsibility, and she is surrounded by men who simply cannot see her at all, who have no idea what she is thinking or feeling and who could not particularly care less. In this desert of emotional intelligence, it’s not surprising that a little spark of authentic sympathy can quickly turn into a forest fire.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that the affairs concerned follow the orthodox route for fiction. The novel opens a couple of years after both have ended, so it’s not like the reader doesn’t know where all this is going. And Kellaway buys into the ideology that affairs are punishments in themselves; the pleasure that Stella and Bella gain is far outweighed by the grief and stress of illicit relationships. But it really doesn’t matter that part of the plot is sketched out before it even begins – the stories of these two women make for utterly compelling reading. Kellaway is a clever writer and the trajectories of her two female protagonists intersect and echo one another at times, striking sparks of significance. She makes brilliant use of what must be the prime erotic tool of office work – the ability to be in constant communication via email, mobile phones and blackberries, and shows how these facilitate office romances as well as lead inexorably to their discovery. And I appreciated her depiction of an affair as akin to madness, the way it swallows its protagonists up in a maelstrom of damaging emotions, provoking them into behaving in ways they would never normally dream of doing. But all the while, Kellaway herself never judges and she never explains. She leaves her readers to be caught up in the turbulence and to make of it what they will.

So why do these otherwise sensible women embark on dangerous affairs? Various possibilities are hinted at that are due to the office environment itself, with boredom hovering always on the threshold, as well as sudden, fierce pressure to perform, and the power play and politics that can so easily leech out over their boundaries. But it’s also significant that none of the main characters has a fulfilling home life, with stale marriages, or lonely singledom waiting at the end of the office day. It may be that to know we are loved by partners or family or friends is not enough. May be we really need to feel love, to be properly engaged with the people who are fond of us, to give and receive genuine, caring sympathy and support, and that without this quality our lives are missing something essential. No, I haven’t quite stated that emphatically enough. It may be that the need to feel the blast furnace heat of love and admiration is so important that we will risk everything in its name, when we have been starved of it for too long. But that’s my explanation, not Kellaway’s, and if you feel like a really good, engrossing, accessible, sharply funny read, then you could always try this and come up with an explanation of your own.

ps – I used the old cover for my image as I prefer it so much to the paperback one, which depicts the back of a woman in high heels and looks horribly trashy. This isn’t a trashy chick-litty book! Why do publishers do this?

19 thoughts on “Office Romance

  1. How interesting, Litlove. It makes me think of Madame Bovary, which I’m just starting to read, and Emma’s dissatisfaction with calmness. As for the “real world” I’ve always wondered why people think that real = boredom and dissatisfaction. If that’s all they have, why not require change instead of looking down on others who do reach for interest and satisfaction in their lives?

  2. Every time an office book gets popular, I wonder why there aren’t more of them too. Then We Came to the End was a big deal a few years ago, but I can’t think of anything in particular before that. To be fair, Then We Came to the End captured the office life better than any other office book I’ve read so far. (In my vast experience of office life. :p)

  3. Excellent review, Litlove! I’ve been working in an office for 10 years now, and it’s interesting how much gossip there is, as well as how often affairs do happen. We had one fairly high profile one that meant the ending of two marriages as the new couple came openly together. It was interesting to watch, and the writer in me really wants to know how it happened! lol I might have to give this book a try.

    Oh – and the glass ceiling still exists, and the women who do get to the higher levels don’t like to show any weakness at all. I wonder sometimes about the price they pay.

    I also agree so much with the admin staff/secretaries – completely overlooked unless they are very lucky and have a good boss.

  4. Just chiming in to say that Lucy Kellaway’s FT columns are always a good read. She invented the character Martin Lukes, the most loathsome marketing executive in the world, and satirises him and his ilk relentlessly. She also does a Dear Lucy agony aunt column for work-related questions, which is full of brisk good sense. I’m a big fan, as you can tell.

    I’ve seen this book advertised on the tube and can’t believe I didn’t clock the author’s name – as you say, the new cover makes it look chick lit-tastic, and I wrote it off. After your review, I’ll have to reconsider!

  5. Now that Jo mentioned Martin Lukes I realized I had Kellaway’s book “Who moved my Blackberry” which is said to be very funny. Another one that seems good is E: A Novel by Ed Beaumont.

  6. I’m so glad you posted this, Litlove! It sounds good and I’m going to pick it up. I also noticed a few people mentioned “Then We Came To The End.” With all respects to Mr. Ferris, I thought it was unduly celebrated and am sorry there aren’t more office novels that do better. I worked in an ad agency for many years and just didn’t believe that anyone in his story was that worried about being fired (the central tension point of the book). They didn’t really seem to like the place anyway, and the ad business is notorious for being a very mobile industry (the more hopping around you do, the better $$ you end up with). That said… I do believe in the power of a good office novel so have started to write one. I’m still feeling my way into the story, but it will draw a lot on my experiences as a mom of two and full-time marketing exec in Manhattan. It’s a soul-blurring existence and one that I think deserves a story (and will hopefully appeal to fans of “I Don’t Know How She Does It”).

  7. ‘grown-up schoolchildren were given pay packets and left mostly to get on with as little work as they could get away with.’ I like that;) And I like the sound of this book beause of the way you’ve described Stella. I’m always baffled by office romances because, really, the office is a place of great conflict, but I have seen then grow and quite a few people I know met their partner at work.

  8. Lilian – quite! I am not sure where the real world is, but I suspect it doesn’t have a discrete location but surrounds us all the time, wherever we are! But interesting link there to poor old Emma Bovary. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on that book!

    Bluestocking – it is!🙂

    Jenny – Mister Litlove read that and enjoyed it. He also enjoyed Company by Max Barry which he said held the best description of office life ever. I should read both books and compare!

    Susan – oh boy you are in a perfect position to assess this novel! I am hugely curious about the office dramas you’ve witnessed. I do find that sort of thing fascinating, as how people tick really intrigues me. I believe what you say about women at the top (I’ll bet there’s a huge price of repression and restraint) and poor secretaries – one day their revolution will come.

    Caroline – I haven’t read it but Mister Litlove has and enjoyed it. He also liked Company by Max Berry.

    Jo – it is so lovely to have you comment here – I owe you a proper email and will send one very soon! I really must follow up on the Lucy Kellaway information as I really did enjoy her writing – so sharp and astute. I’ll bet her column is fabulous. I’m not at all surprised if the tube advert put you off, though. I think the paperback cover is quite dreadful!

    Caroline – I’m rather interested now in the Martin Lukes book, which is advertised in the back of the one I’ve just read. The other novel you mention is completely new to me – I’ll look it up!

    Melissa – well the very best of luck indeed for that project! I hope it comes together splendidly for you and I really think it’s a fantastic setting for a story. I can quite see what you mean about advertising execs, who I never think of as thin-skinned, although I don’t know any so this is pure prejudice! But advertising really attracts storytelling interest doesn’t it? Mad Men sprang to my mind as I was reading your comment.

    Jodie – I know what you mean about offices and conflict! And I never had a boss worthy of romantic interest, nope, not in any possible fantasy. But as a kind of petri dish in which to watch human nature, I don’t think the office can be beaten!🙂

  9. The other book about office life that comes to mind, besides the Ferris, is PopCo by Scarlett Thomas, which I thought was really interesting. The Kellaway sounds like a really good read. I like books about office life, so I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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  11. Oh, office life. Been there, done that! I must say it was never lacking in excitement even if the excitement most of the time had nothing whatsoever to with work. I can’t think of any book I have ever read that has taken place in an office. Maybe it’s because so few authors have ever worked in one to gain that oh so valuable real life experience? But that can’t be. There must be plenty of authors who have worked in an office. Perhaps it was so dreadful they are all blocking it out?😉

    • Great observation! I have always wondered what percentage of authors lose their nerve when they share the most intricate details of their personal experiences with their inner most emotions.

  12. Publishers do that because those sort of covers sell more books. But you knew that.😉

    Nice review, I’ll add it to my list. Always on the look out for intelligent ‘chick-lit’ to balance out the classics.

  13. I read about this one somewhere else as well and will definitely note it down now. I seem to be working in unusual circumstances–a library, so academia, but in an office as well, since I am only staff. It’s not as bad as a regular office (no wild romances…that I know of anyway), but all the usual office politics. This has just been published over here and thankfully with the cover you show!

  14. Pingback: letters and sodas: booknotes » Blog Archive » Library Books/What Next?

  15. Pingback: letters and sodas: booknotes » Blog Archive » In Office Hours by Lucy KellawayGrand Central Publishing (Hachette), 2011

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