Almost two years after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein sparked the spread of the #MeToo movement, the ongoing discussion of sexual harassment has continued to filter into pop culture. There’s been talk of male directors writing Weinstein-inspired horror films; #MeToo-focused TV shows are cropping up; Netflix recently commissioning a limited series based on ProPublica’s Pulitzer Prize winning-article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.”
It’s in this world that the young adult novelist Chandler Baker’s first work of adult fiction is born. Whisper Network takes place in the legal wing of a Dallas-based Nike-esque athletic wear firm called Truviv, where five women are brought together to stand up against their abusive boss, Ames Garrett, the arrogant, middle-aged general counsel. The book primarily follows a handful of female employees: Grace, the always pristine new mom and director of compliance; Ardie, an untidy and unkempt tax attorney (and the only non-white character among them); Sloane, the quick-witted senior vice-president who had an affair with Garrett some years ago, and Katherine, the new attorney with a whole lot of baggage. Woven throughout is the story of Rosalita, the lead janitor at the company who tries to fly under the radar while she removes trash from offices and cleans the bathrooms.
The book, suggested by many as the best beach-read of July and chosen as a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, has largely been marketed as a #MeToo mystery/thriller novel, with the neat-and-tidy conclusions that these books often have. In reality, victims are often afraid of retaliation at work and fear nothing will come of their formal fights against harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that approximately 87-94 percent of incidents are never even formally filed as a complaint. Nonetheless, the women at Truviv seek justice. For years, these women have been harassed, bullied, and even raped by their boss, and when the sudden death of the company’s CEO puts Garrett in line for the position, a spreadsheet titled “BAD Men” starts to circulate around corporate offices across Dallas. Sloane decides to add Garrett’s name to the list and, with the help of Ardie and Grace, she works up the courage to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and the company. But once Ames mysteriously dies, her entire case is thrown out.
The book fills many of its pages with generalizations about corporate women. Each chapter is told by an unnamed narrator, presumably a woman who works at Truviv; in one chapter, the narrator talks about the search for the perfect man, who she describes as someone who never questions feminist ideals when bugs need to be squished, thinks Mindy Kaling is funny, and doesn’t care if his wife makes more money than him. “We were always looking for the perfect man,” the narrator says. “Even those of us who were not signed up for the traditional, heteronormative experience were nevertheless fascinated with the anthropological, unicorn-like search for one.” The narrators give us a look into the intimacies of their lives: their struggles with motherhood; the pressure to keep up their appearances as powerful attorneys; the societal judgment of being unapologetically successful women with dependent husbands.
Some of the raw instances of womanhood are striking, such as when Grace, the perfect mother, refuses to acknowledge her postpartum depression and pushes past thoughts of resenting her own child. The book also addresses the vagaries of privilege between the women who work at the firm and Rosalita, a single mom. At a birthday party for Ardie’s son Michael, Rosalita’s elementary-school aged son, Salomon, is hired to dress up as Spider-Man, even though he’s the same age as the birthday girl. Sloane, meanwhile, debates if she can ask Rosalita to set up a playdate between Salomon and her daughter. “Would that be open-minded or condescending?” Baker writes. “Asking Rosalita’s son to play with Abigail, she meant. And, actually, was wondering whether it was open-minded in itself evidence of a lack of open-mindedness? This was a conundrum. Sloane hated these ethical jigsaw puzzles. Wasn’t it enough that she liked everyone? She’d never met a person that she couldn’t talk to properly. But no, that was apparently naïve of her. Or, an uglier word she’d learned — privileged.”
Tarana Burke, the initial founder of the #MeToo phrase, has critiqued the movement for lifting up wealthy white women, while leaving women of color behind. We see this dynamic play out in Baker’s version of the story. Ardie’s identity as a Latina is glossed over and comes across as only accessory — a means of connecting her to Rosalita which is necessary for the plot to play out. At the very end of the novel, Ardie and the group mention how they’ll offer Rosalita a job at the new firm they plan to start, not necessarily in cleaning. But again, the final image of the novel is between the inner group of self described “middle-aged blonde women,” that Rosalita is continually not part of despite being the sole reason their lawsuit is salvaged in the end.
In the second half of the novel, we start to see flashbacks of how Ames abused the women. Sloane recalls her affair him; the way he forced himself on her even after she said no. Katherine gets caught in a cycle of abuse when Ames grooms her to be his next fling. Ardie and Rosalita both recount their devastating experiences with him. Rosalita, for one, wants some kind of revenge. “Eight years later, she would want the man’s money more than she would want him dead,” Baker writes. “He would wind up dead anyway. She would show up to his wife’s door, something that she had never done before, no matter how many times she’d been tempted. She would have a door closed in her face, telling her to go away and be quiet. And one of those things she would do.” Ardie, meanwhile, just wants to move on: “I just wanted to put it behind me and forget that it happened,” she tells the group. “My dad used to tell me the best way to keep a secret is to pretend that you don’t have one.”
Throughout the novel, the description of the women’s day-to-day encounters with sexism and misogyny are rampant, but the same space isn’t given to the trauma that bleeds into the way they navigate their relationships, sex, and friendships. Baker doesn’t show us how each of them faced their abuser every day for years, without experiencing PTSD or pausing their careers — which are often outcomes of rape or workplace harassment. Instead, we see the women compartmentalizing: Sloane exercising with her personal trainer; Rosalita devoting her life to her son; Ardie hiding behind frumpy outfits; Katherine putting her head down in order to get ahead at the company.
Reality, of course, is much messier than Baker’s depictions — it’s reported that most women who’ve been sexually harassed go on to suffer from stress reactions like anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and sexual dysfunction. But Baker’s epilogue, an impassioned speech about women speaking up, is hardly as satisfying as one that depicts the complicated aftermath of sexual harassment. Asking the reader to believe something that probably wouldn’t happen in real life might be how fiction works, but here, it is particularly unbelievable.