There’s a plot line in Jillian Medoff’s novel that doesn’t quite ring true: When an aging human resources executive hides the fact that she had a stroke, a small group of younger staffers upend their lives to keep the higher-ups from finding out. Really?
Turns out that the plot is drawn from real life, that Medoff once worked for an HR director who had indeed suffered a stroke, yet believed that she was managing all right.
Employees may not have rallied to her cause in that instance, but Medoff makes a reasonable case for why each of her fictional staffers prove so loyal to Rosa Guerrero. Clue: A dose of self-interest doesn’t hurt.
“This Could Hurt” is set in the offices of Ellery Consumer Research in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. There’s an air of “The Office” TV show in its darkly comic tone, but it delves more deeply and seriously into the dynamics of a workplace.
Rosa is a veteran of fighting to be taken seriously as a woman executive and has excelled. Lucy, who once wore smart suits and heels, has settled into sweaters as her ambitions have eased. Leo positions himself as the boss’ gatekeeper. Rob isn’t meant for this line of work, but somehow it happened and now his disinterest has put his job in peril. Brash Kenneth Verville (That’s V-as-in-victory) can’t wait to leave them all in the dust — but it’s a tough economy.
Recognize anyone here?
It’s a wonder that more novels aren’t placed so squarely in an office, for it’s a rich lode. Medoff mines the phenomenon of the “office wife,” generational values, gender politics, racial nervousness, networking and more, all set against the irrevocable reality of meeting the bottom line.
Rob, a job recruiter, regrets once sneering at desperate job hunters “with their hems patched with duct tape and staples,” and now empathizes with their desperation.
He recites the stock lines of “Sorry, but the CEO wants to promote from within” or “There’s no longer a budget for that position,” knowing that they hide the truth that — for legal reasons — he can never say: “You don’t fit in here.”
Medoff still works in management consulting; writing novels is a sideline. The division of labor shows. She’s a deft observer of office politics, as well as human relationships. She has a sense of history.
And she wastes no one’s time: The narrative cracks along, without an indulgent passage in the book. The characters change in credible ways, and Medoff has us, at various times, both rooting for them and wanting to dump coffee over their heads.
But it would only be lukewarm coffee because, as most office workers know, this could hurt.
Kim Ode is a Star Tribune features writer. On Twitter: @Odewrites
This Could Hurt
By: Jillian Medoff.
Publisher: Harper, 375 pages, $26.99.