Alison B. Hart’s incisive debut novel, The Work Wife, captures one day in the lives of esteemed Hollywood director Ted Stabler’s three wives—his ex-wife, his current wife, and his work wife. Each of these women struggles, with varying levels of success, to balance her relationships and creative goals with work and its attendant power dynamics and demands.
Consider the “work wife,” Zanne, the 38-year-old personal assistant to Ted and Holly Stabler. On the morning of the single day that spans the course of the novel, Zanne ponders her chance at a significant promotion, her budding relationship with her girlfriend, and how to clad fifty waiters in yellow hats to fit the jungle theme of the Stablers’ party that evening. Within the first few scenes, she is called upon to clean up the urine of a rogue monkey hired for (and, understandably, subsequently fired from) the event, fix the gym’s Wi-Fi, and respond to various emails. She handles each task with the calm assuredness of a veteran, which, after almost a decade of service as a member of the Stablers’ personal staff, she is. Nothing surprises Zanne about her job, including the “deep sense of personal responsibility she felt to make the Stabler family’s dreams come true, come what may of her own.”
Phoebe, Ted’s first wife, a high school teacher, and a filmmaker in her own right, also knows something about deferred dreams. Years after a traumatic encounter with a predatory producer, Phoebe struggles to position her career outside of Ted’s shadow and consistently runs up against barriers trying to sell the movie she’s spent a large portion of her life dreaming up and creating. Much has changed in the time since she and Ted were married. Phoebe recalls spending her last anniversary with Ted at a bar they used to frequent, “a yeasty, sticky dive in Berkeley that had since been renovated and rebranded with tragic results.” This sad attempt at an upgrade strikes Phoebe as a sacrifice of the bar’s authenticity, patching over the sticky character of a place with something more neutral and palatable.
Enter Holly, Ted’s current wife. Holly wasn’t born to wealth—“People that rich treat regular people like things,” her mother cautioned when Holly decided to marry Ted—but by the time we meet Holly, her sense of entitlement is “casually awful.” At times, she likes thinking of the people she pays to do her hair and makeup and styling as “old friends” and imagining “she was just one of the gang, not the most special member.”
Just as corporations’ saccharine entreaties to workers expected to work long hours ring false—we’re all a family here! the job’s tedious, but it’s fun when you’re with your friends!—so too does Holly’s fleeting wish to be one of the gang. She simultaneously wants to be part of the group who takes on the burden of making her family’s life run smoothly and set apart from it as privileged, which, of course, she is.
Similarly to spotting a trap in corporate messaging, watching Zanne clamber after the promotion also prompts an eyebrow raise. Zanne, like many people with emotionally demanding jobs, recognizes that if she is successful, her boss will “come to rely on her more, not less.” When comparing herself to the woman who has just left the chief of staff position she hopes to fill, Zanne reassures herself that she “wouldn’t let herself be diminished the way Dawn had.” (The eyebrow arches a little higher.) But in an age of increasingly blurry boundaries between work and home life, these little reassurances prop up the small self-delusions it takes to get by and collect a paycheck, and Zanne’s position is one many readers will understand as both real and common. In this way, Hart invites readers to examine her characters with a critical eye while also treating those characters with compassion.
Zanne experiences a certain pleasure in her ability to precisely anticipate and handle Ted’s needs. She savors her importance to him. And who doesn’t enjoy feeling appreciated? Over time, though, relying on these small delusions and the occasional smile for subsistence can only lead to starvation. Hart keenly observes the way Zanne’s work not only consumes the bulk of her attention but at times feels antithetical to who she wants to be: “Absolutely. No problem. Happy to help. These were all ways of saying yes while your soul ran in the other direction.” Each of these euphemisms is no stranger to anyone who has worked in the service industry or corporate world. Not only are you expected to do your job, you’re expected to be unburdened by—even happy about— your labor. So it is only natural that as you careen towards burnout, you do so with a pasted-on smile.
The central conflicts and tensions in The Work Wife spring from the ways characters interact with power or their lack of it. Hart examines the way power can be leveraged to violate, silence, and curtail the accomplishments of women like Phoebe while also engaging with how Phoebe develops a shrewd understanding of her own power: “No one paid attention to you unless they were, at least a little bit, afraid of you.” Similarly, Zanne grapples with her place in the Stabler hierarchy, striving for a promotion while simultaneously questioning whether her job threatens her integrity.
Zanne eventually must confront this dissonance. Even though the money is good, there comes a point where she cannot look away from the way her job and the self-worth she derives from it challenge her basic sense of morality. She is forced to examine how her actions perpetuate the wrongdoings of the privileged class to which her employers belong, and ultimately she must decide whether to stay or leave.
Hart invites readers to examine this dilemma with empathetic scrutiny. She evinces the institutional and financial pressures that enable those with power to take advantage of people-pleasers and perfectionists (and, no surprise, these are often women) without letting her characters off the hook for their actions. Particularly with Zanne, whose role is the title of the novel, and whose storyline reflects elements of Hart’s own experiences as a personal assistant to a billionaire and his family, Hart explores just how much a person can rationalize or excuse before having to face their own complicity. The Work Wife’s nimble pacing and engaging storyline make it easy to devour. It is exhilarating to cheer on Zanne and Phoebe in their endeavors to reclaim the power and autonomy stolen from them. The thief takes multiple forms—powerful Hollywood executives, institutional and individual sexism, capitalism—and the nuanced way the characters take back control of their thorny realities is refreshing. At times both playful and intense, Hart’s debut novel strikes a satisfying balance between resolving individual stories and raising questions that will linger with the reader long after they leave the glimmering Hollywood spectacle of Hart’s creation and get back to work.
The Work Wife
By Alison B. Hart
Published July 19, 2022
Erika is a writer and lawyer currently living in Chicago.