12 Novels About Assistants Trapped in Jobs They’re Too Good For
Alison B. Hart, author of "The Work Wife," recommends stories of employees who pick up (and know all about) their bosses's dirty laundry
In theory, most assistants are on their way to becoming someone bigger. Head coach. Full professor. Editor-in-chief. A more experienced colleague passes down critical know-how while you, the newbie, build up the skill set needed to advance in the organization. That’s how it’s supposed to work at least, but sometimes things go sideways. You’re not given the right opportunities to develop, or you’re simply too valuable as a grunt, and you’re passed over for promotion, never reaching the mountaintop. For others, there is no mountaintop. When I was a personal assistant to a wealthy family, there was no career trajectory. No matter how hard I worked, I would never become my bosses, and many of the skills I picked up were so specific and outré that they didn’t really transfer to any other role. Even if I’d wanted to be a personal assistant to someone else—and there was no reason to, since they treated me well—I would’ve had to start from scratch, learning another person’s routines and preferences.
In my debut novel The Work Wife, about three women in the orbit of a Hollywood movie mogul, only one of the protagonists is an assistant proper, landing on his personal staff after burning out in academia. The other two protagonists—his wife and his ex-business partner—helped to incubate his children and projects. But all three women are equally engaged in the work, paid and unpaid, of insulating this one rich man from the ordinary friction of human life.
The twelve novels gathered here tell the tales of the assistants, temps, apprentices, and unpaid laborers who also smooth the way for others. Is it a coincidence that most of these books are debuts? Or that so many of the protagonists are unnamed while their stories tip into satire? Or are these authors merely following the age-old advice to “write what you know,” when what you know is how to be overlooked even though you’re every bit as smart (or smarter) than the guy (it’s usually a guy) making ten times more (at least) than you? You have to laugh, or else you’ll cry.
The Assistants by Camille Perri
When the CEO of media conglomerate Titan Corporation hollers for his staff, his 30-year-old assistant Tina Fontana knows he needs her—and not his deputy, senior editor, or executive producer—by his tone. “It was a more intimate sound because with me Robert’s needs were always more personal.” But what good is being the first to know about an upset stomach or a marital spat, or being “essential to the success of this castle of a man,” if your own life is stalled? After six years of expensing her boss’s lavish lifestyle—$19K for a first-class plane ticket, or roughly two trips to Tiffany—while her own student loan balance won’t budge, a chance accounting error presents Tina with a unique opportunity to erase that debt. When Emily in Accounting catches on, a conspiracy is born. Perri’s debut is a gleeful page-turner for anyone who’s ever wondered what might happen if the assistants were put in charge.
The Odyssey by Lara Williams
Ingrid’s running from her demons when she’s hired aboard the WA, a cruise ship whose staff rotate through a variety of jobs—IT administrator, manicurist, croupier, able seaman, portrait photographer, customer service assistant, you name it. “I wasn’t good at any of these jobs, none of us were, but that wasn’t the point. We were good at pretending.” When she’s accepted into “the program,” a hush-hush apprenticeship with the ship’s captain that’s organized around the principle of Japanese aesthetics known as wabi-sabi, things start to get extra weird. The assistant becomes the leader in this surreal odyssey.
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
“In a way, it’s tragic when you can do something you don’t like,” says one of the characters of Min Jin Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires, and it makes a decent thesis for the book. Queens-born Casey Han is a Princeton grad with expensive tastes. When she passes up Columbia Law School to become an entry-level sales assistant at an investment brokerage (a “bullshit job” in the eyes of her new boss), she disappoints her Korean immigrant parents almost as much as she does by living in sin with her white boyfriend. Thrown out of the family home, she’s got to make her own way through the excess of 1990s Manhattan—and moonlighting in the accessories department of a luxury department store doesn’t help, as she brings home more hats than she sells. But she’s poised to rise to the top of either world, if she can just commit to one path. With the same keen eye for emotion that she brings to her National Book Award–nominated epic Pachinko, Lee charts the wants and pangs of a woman on the verge.
The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated by Martin Aitken
Originally presented as a parallel fiction to Lea Guldditte Hestelund’s 2018 installation Consumed Future Spewed up as Present, The Employees retains its roots in the visual arts while succeeding as a science fiction satire of the modern workplace. The novel consists of statements by the half human, half humanoid crew of the Six-Thousand Ship following the extraction of a set of objects from the planet New Discovery. Those deemed sufficiently “clean” are allowed to enter the gallery-like space where the objects are displayed to contemplate them and their own productivity. “When I enter the room containing the objects, I am, in every respect, the ship’s pilot, every remnant of the private person is gone,” the first officer says. The committee collecting these statements must decide whether the ship and its crew will continue their mission or be terminated (and destroyed). The work of the reader is to figure out which crew members are flesh and blood and which are “made for work,” and whether the difference even matters. “Should I hate myself anyway?” asks a humanoid worker who has inadvertently deviated from the program. “Who do I go to for forgiveness? Is there an application procedure?” Shortlisted for the International Booker prize, The Employees is for anyone who’s ever felt less than human in a corporate bureaucracy.
NSFW by Isabel Kaplan
Like her mother, a brainy, feminist lawyer who moved to Los Angeles for the good of her husband’s career and not her own, the unnamed narrator of Isabel Kaplan’s debut novel NSFW “was meant for Harvard, not Hollywood.” Nevertheless, diploma in hand, she maneuvers her way onto the desk of a development exec at XBS, a television network known for its safe choices and cops-and-lawyers shows. Development is where the power is, a mentor tells her, and “if you want to make change in a big, noticeable way… you need power.” The only problem: to build that power, she may have to abandon her principles—maintaining a soul-crushing beauty regimen, reading her quixotic boss’s mind, dumbing down her script coverage, and looking the other way when scandal strikes. Set in the Obama years but presaging the #metoo era to come, this is a smart and frequently hilarious look at the true cost of women’s success.
Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke
Told entirely through Slack message threads, Several People Are Typing is a satirical romp through workplace culture and a meditation on the pathos and poetry of digital communication. Gerald is a mid-level employee at a public relations firm when he finds himself somehow stuck inside the app. At first he’s desperate to return to the land of living—no thanks to his coworkers, who are convinced he’s only out to milk his remote setup—but he grows to savor his increased productivity and life inside the matrix. After all, “what is a workplace but a cult where everyone gets paid, really?” He also develops surprisingly intimate relationships with both the coworker he pays to check on his body and Slackbot, a helpful but menacing piece of AI in search of a human form. You don’t have to have the rat-a-tat-tat of Slack’s new message notification etched in your consciousness like one of Pavlov’s dogs to enjoy this book, but it doesn’t hurt.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Editorial assistant Nella Rogers is the only Black woman at Wagner Books, a publisher whose last African American hit came out 35 years ago, so when Hazel-May McCall joins the team, Nella’s thrilled. Finally, a chance to have “a ‘work wife’ who really understood her,” not to mention someone to share the emotional workload at the company’s awkward diversity town halls. But when Hazel encourages her to be frank with their boss about a problematic book going to press, with disastrous results, and then moves ahead of her in the pecking order, Nella knows the other Black girl is not the work wife she hoped for. Throw in a mysterious note telling her to LEAVE WAGNER NOW, and Nella finds herself at the center of a sinister plot that reaches back decades. A former editorial assistant at Knopf, Harris spins a wild thriller that’s also a convincing takedown of the publishing industry.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, translated by Polly Barton
Originally published in Japan in 2016, Tsumura’s first work to be translated into English makes a fitting companion to the Great Resignation of the Covid years. The unnamed narrator has left her profession due to burnout. When her unemployment insurance runs out, she asks a recruiter to find her job “as close as possible to my house—ideally, something along the lines of sitting all day in a chair.” We follow the narrator through a series of temporary odd jobs that are simple enough, yet still emotionally draining. Is it humanly possible to square her work ethic with the symptoms of burnout syndrome that leave her caught somewhere between wanting “a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not” and being “happy when people took pleasure in my work, and it made me want to try harder”? When she lands at “an easy desk job in a hut in a big forest,” the lessons she’s learned from each gig thread together in uncanny ways. Part detective story, part meditation on the demands of late-stage capitalism, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job charms.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Emira Tucker, a broke Temple grad about to age out of her health insurance, knows she can’t be a babysitter forever. But she loves sweet three-year-old Briar Chamberlain so much that it’s easy to postpone the inevitable pivot to adulting. If only Briar’s mom Alix, an influencer who’s the epitome of white entitlement, weren’t part of the package. One minute she’s giving Emira a cheesy branded polo shirt to wear as her uniform (and secretly snooping through her texts); the next she’s trying to be her new best friend. When a supermarket security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping her young charge, and a handsome bystander makes a video of the encounter that goes viral, Emira and Alix’s lives become even more entangled. Such a Fun Age is a richly observed study of the domestic workplace and the tensions that compound when white guilt is in the mix.
Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman
Back home Patrick Hamlin might be a big deal, a novelist “on the cusp of his 40s” whose book is being adapted into a Hollywood movie, but on set he’s nothing but a lowly production assistant watching his life’s work get butchered. His initial shivers of pride dissipate when he learns he’ll be doing “a job for a kid,” chauffeuring the film’s star, Cassidy Carter, around LA.
Eager to distinguish himself from his peers, a couple of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern PAs who do little but provide comic relief, Patrick decides “in the first week that he doesn’t fetch, or he only fetches important items, items with an integral part to play in the story.” That means helping Cassidy hoard the cases of real water that she receives in lieu of a salary, and trying to get to the bottom of WAT-R, the synthetic substitute everyone in LA unthinkingly glugs while wildfires rage all around them. Working without finding any meaning in it is just one of the horrors uncovered in this dystopic fever dream about the climate crisis.
Temporary by Hilary Leichter
“There is nothing more personal than doing your job.” The unnamed narrator of Temporary first encounters this adage on a granola bar wrapper but “it’s a sentiment strong enough on which to hang my heart and purpose.” She comes from a long line of temporaries, much like Circe comes from a line of gods, and her life’s purpose is to find “the steadiness,” the near-mythical achievement of a permanent job. Until then, she has “a shorthand kind of career. Short tasks, short stays, short skirts.” In these stints, she fills not just the role, but the person-shaped hole left behind by the absent employee. “It takes an aggressive empathy to accurately replace a person,” whether it’s a pirate, a ghost, a murderer, or the chairman of the board of “the very, very major corporation, Major Corp.” With verve and insight, Leichter embraces the surreal in this sendup of the gig economy.
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water by Angie Cruz
It’s the spring of 2009 and Cara Romero—56, Dominicana, and unemployed since her factory job of 25 years moved overseas—wants to work. “Write that down,” she tells the counselor she meets with each week at the Senior Workforce Program, because “what is a person without an occupation?”
Through a series of tangent-filled sessions, applications, and questionnaires (“Degree Earned: Survival; Previous Employer: The factory of little lamps; Job Title: Whatever job needs to be done”), we learn Cara’s résumé, both the paid and unpaid obligations (professional, romantic, and otherwise) that fill up the pages of her life story. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who can do it all: care for her community, manage disasters, organize, and problem-solve. Artfully constructed, and by turns laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving, Cruz’s latest exposes the fragility at the center of American capitalism.