The setup for The Assistants by Camille Perri is straight forward. Tina Fontana, 30 year old English grad from NYU and assistant to Robert Barlow, head of Titan Corporation, a fictional Fox News clone, has just been reimbursed nearly $20,000 by her employer. It is a reimbursement for which she is technically not entitled. Coincidentally, it is also almost exactly the same amount she owes on her student loans, which have been bleeding her dry.
So what does an overeducated, underpaid rule-keeper do when she comes to that moral fork in the road? Easy: She takes it. She feels terrible about it, of course. Just not terrible enough to fess up and give the money back.
Things first start to go badly when she is found out by Emily Johnson, whose job it is to approve expense reports. But to Tina’s surprise, Emily doesn’t want to bust her. Instead, Emily, saddled with her own student loan debt and meager means to pay them, wants in on the scheme.
Everything spirals out of control rapidly from there, getting more complicated and convoluted. As the scheme takes on a life of its own, Can Tina keep her job? gives way to Can Tina stay out of jail? Read the next chapter and find out!
This makes The Assistants a great summer read. With its bite-sized chapters and breezy style, it’s an easy book to pick up and put down, then pick back up again. The humor and pop culture references are more of the chuckle-to-yourself variety than the laugh-out-loud kind, but it’s plenty funny enough.
The humor couples with a feminist worldview to make The Assistants a 9-to-5 for the Millennial generation. Because the bigger issues Perri dances with aren’t just student debt and dead end careers. They are issues of power: who has it and who doesn’t. Who has it are the rich, especially the rich men. Who doesn’t is everyone else, especially the women who work for them. But what happens when the powerless seize some control for themselves?
“Think of the potential here, Tina,” says one of her co-conspirators at one point. “We’re not only the ninety-nine percent, we’re assistants to the one percent. There’s power in that.”
The characters are well rounded. The reluctant protagonist and narrator, Tina, grows in spite of herself. Her shallow and manipulative co-conspirator, Emily, turns out to be just another lonely woman trying to get by, and evolves into a worthy sidekick and fiercely loyal friend. Even her boss, Robert, is drawn with compassionate strokes to complement the hard ass businessman that he is. Though he is one of the most powerful men on the planet, and has no problem throwing his weight around, he can be good to the people who work for him. Especially Tina. Robert is no Dabney Coleman villain, and the guilt that Tina feels in stealing from him is one of the main drivers of the story.
It’s a fun, subtle book for the underappreciated, and one that any reader who makes less per year than their boss spends on miscellaneous can relate to.