Opening Belle – the title of this just-released first novel, already snapped up by Warner Bros for a film starring American actress Reese Witherspoon – is, we’re told, loosely based on Maureen Sherry’s real-life experience working in the top management tiers of Bear Stearns in New York during the 2008 financial crisis.
At first glance, as we have come to expect of novels of this type, Isabelle McElroy – the Sherry character – is a woman who has it all. At 36, she is a managing director of major New York investment bank, Feagin Dixon, with a sprawling apartment on Central Park West, a cottage in the Hamptons, three adorable children and a stay-at-home husband.
But, of course, this being the kind of novel that it is, that first glance will prove to be deceptive…
Opening Belle begins in 2007, which means that the reader, unlike the blissfully ignorant characters, is keenly aware of the fact that the cataclysmic bear market of 2007/8 is looming. This ferocious market beast has designs on the lifestyles of people like our Isabelle, and it will soon begin to brutally devour and lay waste on all sides.
In the meantime, though, McElroy has other concerns. As the story begins, she is finding it “…almost impossible to juggle private life, love and family with business and ambition”, and she is far from happy with the way women are treated in the Feagin Dixon workplace.
Here, she has to deal with a cast of novelistically-distasteful characters such as Marcus Ballbridge, “… most often referred to as ‘Ballsy’, a thirty-nine-year-old father of two… [who] has angular features and a Southern drawl laced with charm.” Also, “Fletch Buckfire … an old-school sales guy stuck in some permanent stage of adolescence”.
Ballbridge, Buckfire and the other one-dimensional male characters trotted out by Sherry are given to asking questions of McElroy along the lines of “how long are you going to keep this kid/job thing going?”
McElroy, of course, doesn’t appreciate the casual racism and rampant sexism prevalent on the trading floors of Feagin Dixon. And fortunately for her, she is not without some equally one-dimensional female allies, such as “Amanda Mandelbaum, an almost-vice president … five feet two of dynamic energy that gets easily irritated”, and “Alice Harlington …a dour, no-nonsense analyst who always appears to have just tasted something nasty”.
Soon, several FD female executives have come together to form the GCC, or “Glass Ceiling Club”, to carry the fight for equality to the entrenched male interests in the business. Soon, we have the two themes of work/life balance and the struggle for fair treatment of women in the financial sector playing out, as we knew they would, against the backdrop of the unfolding financial crisis.
And McElroy, we soon discover, is actually dead serious about combating the glass ceiling. When she finds herself in bed with her ex-fiancé, her pillow-talk includes such observations as, “In an industry that equals 8% of the gross domestic product of this country…we can only point to two women who have made a total success of it”.
There is some insight here into how an investment bank goes about its business, but it is largely for the neophyte… “Whenever there is news that will significantly impact a stock price, trading halts in that stock while buyers and sellers figure out the correct price to begin again”, we are told at one point.
Author Maureen Sherry apparently spent 11 years as a managing director at Bear Stearns – after which she acquired a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University – and thus it is impossible to see Opening Belle as anything but a thinly-disguised memoire of her Wall Street experiences, that we are lured into reading by the unspoken promise of head-shaking, eye-rolling revelations. Which, on occasion, Sherry delivers.
In between, readers are taken through the complexities of collateralised mortgage obligations (CMOs) and collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), as McElroy forms an informal partnership with Kathryn Petersen, her counterpart in fixed income, the most senior woman on the mortgage desk and, “an intense robotic human, frightening in her perfection and beauty”.
Feagin Dixon is desperate to catch up with Goldman Sachs in the mortgage-backed securities market, and the pair are soon issuing CDOs backed by sub-prime mortgages to their clients, although, presciently at one point, they do acknowledge the “mind-blowing liability” potential were these instruments to default. Oh-oh.
As the inevitable starts to happen – “Nobody thought it through. Everyone had so much faith in our rating agencies, in the banks writing the loans, and in a government that encourages cheap money so everyone can own a home” – McElroy’s marriage falls apart, as her husband takes comfort in the arms of a tantric yoga exponent.
Given what we now know, it’s probably not too much of a plot-spoiler to say that Feagin Dixon goes on to implode, as we knew it would, and is bought in a fire-sale by a Midwest bank; the Glass Ceiling Club brings a successful class-action suit for harassment and unfair pay practices at FD against the successor bank; and with the substantial settlement, its members set up Arbella Financial, “a boutique investment firm, predominately run by women … we aren’t making millions but we’re doing really well”.
The loose ends are all tied up neatly at the end. The good guys and gals win and the baddies are suitably chastened.
Opening Belle is not great literature; neither is it a particularly fresh, in-depth expose of the machinations of the pre-Crash, testosterone-heavy trading rooms of Wall Street. It examines a corner of a world that is already familiar to readers from such films as Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities and such other books as Flash Boys, Young Money and The End of Wall Street, only from a woman’s perspective.
Opening Belle probably works best as an undemanding, albeit formulaic, beach read, if that’s what’s sought, rather than an enlightening expose of Wall Street and the women who attempt to make it there.
By Maureen Sherry
Simon & Schuster, 352 pp
Hardcover List price, UK: £12.99
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