Book Review: The Partner Track by Helen Wan

So this book first came to my attention when it was announced that it was due to be adapted for TV by Netflix, featuring the sensational Arden Cho. I never like to do half measures, and I’m always up for discovering new and talented authors, so I immediately grabbed myself a copy.

Before we start the review, some quick info, so The Partner Track was written by Helen Wan, a Taiwanese-American lawyer and author. The plot of The Partner Track was somewhat based upon Helen’s own experience as a young female, person of colour in the legal profession. The Partner Track follows the journey of Ingrid Yung, as she attempts to become the first minority woman to make partner at her firm, Parsons Valentine & Hunt, while also striving to make her parents, who are first-generation Chinese-Americans immigrants proud. 

Helen says that while there is overlap between her and Ingrid, that the book is not autobiographical, she did however strive to provide as accurate an experience of corporate life as possible, and obviously her own experiences as a woman of colour help to shape some of the experiences of those had by Ingrid but the book itself is a work of fiction. 

I was obviously inspired to read the book by the then upcoming television series based upon it, but honestly it’s well worth it on its own. Helen on her website described the process of writing and getting the book published as a real labour of love, and that comes across clearly in the book. 

Okay, so let’s kick things off by talking about Ingrid, now she’s a very complex character, she’s vulnerable, and yet has an internal resolve which keeps her motivated and sees her through the difficulties and obstacles in her way, as she pursues her goal. She’s a strong feminine character, who resists having her identity be squashed by the obvious external factors as play, such as working in corporate law, but at the same time, and rather unfortunately in my opinion, Ingrid, like a lot of young women, and persons of colour, is encouraged to or punished for not, conforming to the expectations and demands of those in power. 

I touched on Ingrid’s complexity above. She’s someone with a strong sense of purpose and identity, and yet the external factors I mentioned above, push her to compromise her values and ethics, in pursuit of her goals. We see her come to terms with the parts of herself that she perhaps is not super comfortable with, and this is honestly one of the reasons why I liked this book so much. Helen easily could have made Ingrid perfect, and had the challenge be breaking into the ‘good ol’ boy’ culture that exists at her firm. But by also making her own issues a factor, it not only made Ingrid more believable but also helped for me as the reader, to connect with her more. We all, wish or hope, that we are the heroes in our own narratives, and sadly, that’s very rarely the case, but what we can do, and what Ingrid learns is when to draw the line in the sand, and when to make amends.

To depart from Ingrid for just a moment, I discussed in my intro, that due to drawing on her own experiences as a lawyer for a large corporate firm, the reality as portrayed in The Partner Track, apparently aligns quite well with what it means to actually work for a corporate firm in real life. Now I said something similar in the review of the TV adaption, that I am not a lawyer, or an expert in anything pertain to the law; due to my background as a journalist, I have an basic understanding of copyright, plagiarism, and defamation law, but I do not consider myself an authority on anything. Then you have to consider the obvious cultural divides between practicing law in the UK and the US, which would add an additional layer of diffusion even if I did know more about the law. What I mean by all of this is, that I cannot personal attest to how accurate the legal stuff is, but I can tell you that it has an air of authenticity to it, and that I feel that Helen presented it as accurately as possible, and anything that perhaps isn’t 100% accurate, much like I discussed in the TV Review is probably due to the book being fiction, and therefore a stretching of the truth in pursuit of a good story is totally fine by me.

Jumping back to what I feel is the core of the book, The Partner Track, delves into issues of misogyny, racism, and also the pervasive culture of nepotism and bias at play in corporate law. Ingrid is highly competent, efficient and dedicated, and yet she watches throughout her 8 years at Parson Valentine & Hunt as people get opportunities she would kill for, just because of their race or gender, or because they know someone at the top. Again, the story easily could have just been about Ingrid dealing with bigotry and intolerance, but it’s not just about her gender or race, it’s also about the connections, and the hand-shaking and back door deals. This adds an additional undercurrent, Ingrid feels like the system is rigged against her, and it is…but for so many different reasons, that I’m sure she must feel like Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder up a hill.

So I thoroughly enjoyed both book and TV Series, however despite the overlap, I think they have different focuses. The TV series delved more into relationships, whether it be romantic, familial or platonic. Whereas the book was more focused on Ingrid’s specific journey to making partner, and the challenges which arise and prevent her from taking her rightful seat at the table. That’s not to decry the television series, as it did cover a lot of the same ground, but in the end I think you might watch the tv series for different reasons that you read the book. 

I think a moment in the book, which appeared in both, and truly touches at the heart of the issues at play, was the offensive skit performed at the law firms corporate retreat, Now it would be nice if people were held accountable for their action, and if offensive statements and views were called out, unfortunately the situation put Ingrid in something of a bind, as she was personally offended by the skit, and yet in her efforts to make partner she reluctantly agrees to take charge of a new ‘diversity initiative’ at Parsons Valentine & Hunt which unfortunately has her appear to minimise the impact of the damaging remarks and actions made. It’s a tough moment, as you can see why Ingrid has ended up here, and how hard these attempts at assimilation have been for her.

It was an enlightening read, as a member of the LGBT+ community, and a vocal one at that, I’m no stranger to intolerance and bigotry, so I understand to an extent how difficult it can be to deal with, I have the luxury, however of being able to pass in a world that deems ‘normal’ to be straight, white, christian and male. Ingrid does not, and so the minor and major intolerances, micro-aggressions and outright xenophobia faced by Ingrid, and all persons of colour are so much worse. They cannot obscure or hide the fact that they are different, and any attempts at assimilating, or adapting or passing, can just make things worse in the grand scheme of things. 

The skit, and the aftermath, are one of the most poignant examples in the book, but the book is not light on things which force the reader to be confronted by the ugly reality that so many people have to face on a day to day basis. One of the scenes from the book, which greatly impacted Georgia Lee, the showrunner for the television adaption, which actually encouraged her to adapt the book in the first place, was a flashback scene, where on a visit to Manhattan, after a picturesque day in the big city, they go to visit her father’s mentor, he lives in a rather fancy building on Fifth Avenue, and the doorman, mistakes her dad for a delivery man and makes some racial remarks. This is Ingrid’s first real experience with racism, and it’s moments like these which truly impact you as a reader. It also serves to explain Ingrid drive as a person, she’s determined to never be viewed as an outsider again. 

Now I’ve tried, and perhaps failed to keep the TV show, out of this book review, but for a lot of readers coming to this in 2022 it’ll no doubt be at least partially driven by the new show, and that’s a good thing, there are obvious differences, for example changing Ingrid Yung to Ingrid Yun, and making her Korean-American, to reflect the heritage of the actress playing her. But I found that the core vibe of the both, was similar, and that when turning a 300 odd page book, into 10, 40 minute or so long episodes, they were free to explore and add and extrapolate so of course there was going to be some differences, but I don’t think they added anything which truly devalued the message of the book. I think, as I touched on above, you get different things from both, and they can be enjoyed together or separately. 

I like Ingrid, she’s believable and she’s stuck in a position where she’s going to make mistakes, and where she’s forced to be a ‘Model Minority’, because god forbid she do something that’s unpalatable to the people in charge. She worked so hard for her partner position, maybe even stepping on a few people to get there. Because the system has her so twisted that she genuinely feels that it’s preferable to being out in the cold. Plus I have to imagine that she feels she can enact some sort of Affirmative action once she holds a position of power. Ignoring, of course, that unjust power systems stay in power by closing ranks and refusing to budge. I think a scene which really draws this into focus is when her fellow minority colleagues are sharing their own stories about dealing with this entrenched system designed to keep them out, and she has to take a real reflective look at how this impacts her, and what her actions say about her.

I think what impressed me most was Helen’s ability to portray this unfairness and the real human desire to escape it. Ingrid isn’t perfect, but she’s trying her best, and it would have been easy for Helen to portray Ingrid as purely virtuous, fighting against the injustice, a David, to the corporate world’s Goliath, but instead she finds a balance. She writes a very human, and very authentic narrative that I’m sure will resonate with many readers.

Overall, I found The Partner Track to be a very engaging read, it has some rough edges, the earlier chapters are a little dryer than the following ones, but honestly I enjoyed the story, I was engrossed in Ingrid’s narrative and it opened my eyes even wider to the difficulties and challenges faced by people every single day. I would strongly recommend people check out this book, and it more than earns a strong 4/5.

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