A few pages into Maureen Sherry's new novel, Opening Belle, chronicling a successful female managing director's time at a large Wall Street bank, I had a feeling I knew where things were heading. Spoiler alert: After simultaneously enjoying and enduring her work at the company, amid sky-high bonuses and rampant sexism, she would leave. And she'd go on to start her own firm.
Part of the giveaway comes from the knowledge that the book is heavily autobiographical, and that Sherry herself worked as a managing director at Bear Stearns for 11 years before resigning to get her MFA. But the main reason this ending was so obvious is that it has become the default conclusion for women grappling with overtly sexist organizations, both in literature and in life.
At the close of the novel, Sherry's main character cites Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article as one of the points of inspiration behind her choice, focusing on the theme that women can achieve an optimal work-life balance when they are the ones determining their own work environment and culture.
“She wants the fight,” said Amanda. “She hasn’t figured out the only truly successful women on Wall Street are at the small firms, where we can hold onto control.”
Sherry’s book follows The Partner Track, a 2013 novel by Helen Wan that documented the experience of an Asian American woman overcoming racial and gender biases in a cutthroat corporate law firm. That book’s narrative arc treaded much of the same ground as Opening Belle, and ultimately landed in the exact same place: After years of exemplary work, Ingrid Yung, the protagonist, becomes so fed up with her company's attitudes toward diversity that she opens her own shop and takes her best clients with her.
These characters' choices are framed as bold, empowering, and optimistic decisions—opportunities for women to excel professionally and make a unique mark on their industries while thriving in work environments that they build themselves. Yet for the reader, they can also feel otherwise, provoking emotions of both sadness and anger; it’s a shame that these industries are so inhospitable to women that their best, and ultimately, only choice is to leave. In the end, though these characters “succeed,” they really didn’t have much of a choice at all.