For my drives to and from Michigan over the past couple of weekends, I downloaded the audiobook Opening Belle, a new novel by former Bear Stearns managing director Maureen Sherry. Unlike many of her colleagues, Sherry never signed a non-disclosure agreement upon leaving the firm; she wrote Opening Belle partly to offer insight into the working environment women face on Wall Street.
The story is told in the first person by Belle McElroy, who grew up in the Bronx, graduated from Cornell University, and rose quickly through the ranks at the fictional Feagin Dixon bank in New York City. Now in her mid-thirties, Belle has made managing director and is raising three children under the age of eight. Her husband Bruce doesn’t exactly have a day job, but he doesn’t exactly take full responsibility for the kids and the apartment during the work week, either.
Opening Belle begins roughly a year before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2008. Belle walks into the Feagin Dixon holiday party straight from a harried evening of Christmas shopping, hoping to show her face to the right people and leave in time to put her kids to bed, but she doesn’t make it – after a coworker slips his hand down her skirt as they chat and a group of young guys unwrap and play catch with the Hairstyle Barbie head Belle just bought for her daughter, she needs to walk the city streets for hours to cool off.
It quickly becomes apparent that Sherry’s book is about a woman who works on Wall Street and is fed up with the way men treat their female colleagues, not just a woman who works on Wall Street. The constant descriptions of bad behavior by male bankers grew tiresome for me, but if the author’s goal is to bring to light the sexism she experienced at Bear Stearns, readers will hear the message loud and clear.
Things get interesting when Belle’s ex-fiance, Henry, re-enters her life as one of her largest clients. We watch Belle’s life become crazier and crazier as she works closely with Henry, attends covert meetings of the Glass Ceiling Club her few female coworkers have created in an effort to change the culture at Feagin Dixon, and realizes the jig will soon be up on the banking industry. Belle knows major changes are coming, but at this point she can only hope they are in her favor…
Opening Belle was an entertaining listen, and that’s really all I was looking for – something to pass the time while I white-knuckled my way past semi-trucks on narrow roads that have been under construction for, oh, the entire two years I’ve been traveling between Columbus and Detroit. Sherry is obviously smart, and she writes well, too – she actually earned an MFA at Columbia after leaving Bear Stearns. Her explanation of the mortgage crisis is worked seamlessly into the story, and the peeks into the life of a high-powered banker are fascinating. I only wish there had been less focus on the problematic parts of that life and more on what kept Sherry coming back to work every day for over a decade.