The Partner Track – Helen Wan

Ingrid Yung is an associate lawyer at Parsons Valentine and Hunt LLP, one of New York’s top corporate law firms, – ‘…our windows overlooked the grand expanse of Fifth Avenue and Central Park’. This year, Yung is up for partner. However, she feels like an outsider, with good reason: she’s American-Chinese and a woman. Although she’s not the only woman at the firm, she is the only ‘woman of color’ (as they like to term her).

Here was another thing about all the male attorneys I worked with. They all called me by my last name, Yung, instead of by my first name, Ingrid. I wondered if some of them even knew what my first name was. But I didn’t mind this. I’d been in the corporate world long enough to know that it was a good sign. When they felt comfortable enough to swear like sailors around me, I knew I was finally in.

As the novel begins, Ingrid is selected to work on a major acquisition – an almost one billion dollar deal by an energy conglomerate – that needs to be closed within weeks. She’s also given a new paralegal to ‘show the ropes’, one whose father is a close friend of one of the company’s partners. This is a major coup for her but it also means five weeks of long working hours.

At Parsons Valentine, it was a twisted form of bragging right to say you’d spent all night in the office. It was an even better badge of honor to miss a scheduled vacation due to work. The firm paid out thousands of dollars each year to reimburse its attorneys for missed flights and lost deposits on hotels, spas, and rented villas. One guy up for partner in Litigation had recently upped the ante for all of us by skipping the birth of his first child in order to take a deposition.

Everything’s looking great for Ingrid until the night of Parsons Valentine’s firm outing. I’m not going to spoil a set piece that will leave you veering between cringing, disgust and outrage but the events of that day leave Ingrid with another task: supporting the Diversity Initiative the firm instigates.

What’s great about The Partner Track is the narrative voice; Ingrid is engaging – intelligent and funny – she can detach herself enough from events at the firm to comment on them but that rarely prevents her from getting involved in things that make her feel uncomfortable if it means they’ll help her make partner. Obviously, a compromised character is an interesting one. It’s also fascinating (and enormously depressing) to see the way Ingrid is treated, both as a woman and as an American-Chinese woman. Be warned, it will make you want to throw things and/or scream.

The book’s not perfect, however. Lawyers (at least the ones in this novel) use far too many clichés and occasional sentences are overwritten, for example, ‘At the same time, almost imperceptibly, by slow, expert degrees, the ambient lighting in the room dimmed, and Marty Adler was bathed in a subtle spotlight up at the podium’.

These are issues that can be overlooked for a first time novelist though, as long as the characters and plot are engaging. Some of the supporting characters felt underdeveloped and occasionally the plot suffered from being driven by the issues Wan wanted to explore, however, Ingrid is a well-drawn character; you’ll find yourself rooting for her from the first few pages of the book and turning the pages to discover whether her story has the ending she desires.

Would I recommend The Partner Track? Yes, I would. It’s rooted in a desire for equality – gender, race and sexuality – and it’s got a great protagonist. One to indulge in on a grey, autumn Sunday afternoon.

The Partner Track is published in the USA today and in the UK in ebook format. It will be published in the UK in hardback on the 2nd of December.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.