Friday, 14 May 2010
Book Review: Lucy Kellaway’s In Office Hours
Stella Bradbury is Head of Economics, Strategy and Planning at Atlantic Energy. In her mid-forties, married to a documentary marker (who happens to the youngest ever BAFTA winner) with 2 kids, Stella has everything going for her at work and at home. Yet Stella embarks on a wild affair with a trainee, putting at risk her career and her marriage. Bella Chambers is a secretary at Atlantic Energy. Pretty at twenty seven, she is a single mum with a seven year old daughter and spends a certain amount of her time keeping her drug addict ex-boyfriend at bay and away from her daughter. Bella too has an affair at the same time as Stella – with her new boss James Staunton, who has just finished an affair with Julie Swanson. Bella is aware of James’s affair with Julie for she used to be Julie’s secretary and has read all her emails. Bella also knows very well the fate of a woman who has an office affair. When Julie’s affair with James ended, she had to leave Atlantic Energy.
What is it that makes people have office affairs? Especially an extra marital one. An office affair, by its very nature carries a certain degree of risk, unlike one conducted with someone from outside the work area. The risk increases substantially if it happens to be an extra-marital one. Why then does Stella plunge into an affair with a trainee many years younger? Stella would not have looked twice at Rhys Williams if she had met him outside Atlantic Energy’s imposing office. Do office workers tend to look at colleagues, be they bosses or sub-ordinates, in a different light than they would if they weren’t colleagues? Before she starts her affair with James Staunton, Bella wonders how on earth Julie Swanson found James attractive when he is a balding man of average height with a largish bottom. As for Stella, she initially finds her new trainee Rhys Williams to be arrogant, incorrigible and …..lazy and ticks him off.
In Office Hours’s author Lucy Kellaway writes a regular column in the Financial Times on office and management. Her column “pokes fun at management fads and jargon and celebrates the ups and downs of office life.” Kellaway’s curiosity about all things connected to office life is only too evident in her latest book. Other than exploring why the two women have office affairs, In Office Hours takes a dig at everything from office jargon to the way bosses listen (or don’t listen) to their subordinates, to bonding sessions (which Kellaway really loathes), to the politics within the secretarial pool, to the less than even handed treatment women receive in terms of pay and how women are perceived by their male colleagues.
Kellaway doesn’t need any more accolades about her ability to delve into office life and expose its quirks and quibbles for her readers, but how does In Office Hours measure up as a work of fiction? Kellaway’s characters are flesh and blood characters and only too believable though when dissected, they are full of contradictions. For example, Rhys Williams is shown as being street smart and good at driving bargains (he negotiates a discounted rate at the hotel where he has his trysts with Stella) though he quotes poetry all the time and we are told that he read English at Jesus Colleague, Oxford. James Staunton is not flamboyant or chirpy or even well-dressed though he is head of External Relations and goes on to take charge of Press Relations as well, after Julie Swanson departs. I am not convinced that Staunton fits the profile of your typical pres officer, but I guess Kellaway has met more Press Officers in the course of her 25-year long career with the FT than she can wave a stick at whilst I can count on the fingers of my hands the ones I know and so, I’ve decided to give Kellaway the benefit of doubt on this one.
Kellaway does not hesitate to stretch her fiction writer’s license to the fullest extent. For example, when she hosts a party at her home, her husband talks of filming at a deprived part of Wales. It turns out that Rhys Williams grew up there. During a business dinner in Moscow, Stella watches as a blonde six-foot model caresses Atlantic Energy’s CEO’s thigh as his Russian counterpart fondles a young girl’s breasts with sausage fingers. Stella’s and Bella’s feelings for their lovers progress from aversion and loathing to love in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mills and Boon novel. For Stella “the cocky confidence that had once enraged her delighted her.” As for Bella, though James is alternately temperamental and cold and not attractive at all, he makes her feel like the person she’d like to be rather than the person she is. And what’s more, both women individually meet up with girl friends they don’t entirely like and spill the beans even before either affair is fully developed.
It’s not just the employees of Atlantic Energy who are caught in Kellaway’s net. Even their spouses and kids find no escape and are painted in the nude by Kellaway. Does James’s wife Hillary drive him into the arms of other women by her extreme behaviour at home? Does Charles the documentary maker nudge his wife Stella into having an affair with Rhys by his preoccupation with his work and his general indifference to hers? A keen observer, Kellaway’s eye notices interesting trivia about human behaviour all the time which makes for interesting reading. For example, we are told that Charles dislikes mention of his Bafta since it reminds him that there have been no recent triumphs.
For a Londoner and especially for someone who works in London’s financial district (as I do), In Office Hours is littered with mentions of Wagamamas, Prets, bike couriers and other comforting accessories that make the City a place fit for human habitation and work.
However, the biggest drawback in this book is that, it drags a lot, especially in the middle. For sure, In Office Hours is a brilliant excoriation of office life, but once I reached the middle of this three hundred and forty three-page novel, I found the going tiresome - page after page of how people behave in office. It is as if Kellaway has crammed in everything she knows about offices and the people who work there into this book. The usual Kellaway column in the FT is a delight to read, but it is not more than a few pages long. What made the going especially weary was the feeling that I knew how the book would end. After all, doesn’t the novel begin with Stella and Bella putting their affairs behind them and making peace with themselves?
However, towards the last fifty odd pages of the book, Kellaway the fiction writer redeems herself. I thought I knew how the novel would end since I knew that the affairs do come to a close. But hold on, Kellaway has a few surprises in store for her readers. The affairs do end, both of them, but not so tamely and the manner of each ending has an element of surprise which relieves the tedium of the previous one hundred and fifty odd pages. We know from the start that Stella and Bella are in it for love. However, what about the men? Is Rhys an ambitious trainee trying to sleep his way to the top or does he love Stella? The answer to this question can be found before one gets half way through the book. Why does James Staunton, a man who has just finished one affair embark on another with Bella? Kellaway saves the answer and doesn’t tell us till the end.
I found myself comparing Kellaway’s book with Michael Crichton’s Disclosure which I had enjoyed a lot, lot more than I enjoyed In Office Hours. From what I remember, (I read it over fifteen years ago) Disclosure too deals with office politics. A male executive is at the receiving end of amorous advances from his female boss. When he spurns them, he is accused of sexual harassment. The protagonist takes his case to court and of course … finally wins. In addition to sexual harassment, Disclosure also deals with office politics and corporate intrigue. The main difference between Disclosure and In Office Hours is that the former merely tries to tell a story with a lot of drama whilst in the latter, Kellaway tries to lay bare as much of Atlantic Energy and its personnel as she can. The story is secondary for Kellaway and this gives large swathes of the book the feel of a business school case study. Despite that, this book is a good read for anyone interested in office life, human nature and in finding out what the work environment does to human beings.