I received this book for review consideration from the via Shelf Awareness for Readers. All opinions are my own.Break in Case of Emergency: A novel
Written by Jessica Winter
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on July 12th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Urban, Satire
Source: via Shelf Awareness for Readers
An irreverent and deeply moving comedy about friendship, fertility, and fighting for one’s sanity in a toxic workplace.
Jen has reached her early thirties and has all but abandoned a once-promising painting career when, spurred by the 2008 economic crisis, she takes a poorly defined job at a feminist nonprofit. The foundation’s ostensible aim is to empower women, but staffers spend all their time devising acronyms for imaginary programs, ruthlessly undermining one another, and stroking the ego of their boss, the larger-than-life celebrity philanthropist Leora Infinitas. Jen’s complicity in this passive-aggressive hellscape only intensifies her feelings of inferiority compared to her two best friends—one a wealthy attorney with a picture-perfect family, the other a passionately committed artist—and so does Jen’s apparent inability to have a baby, a source of existential panic that begins to affect her marriage and her already precarious status at the office. As Break in Case of Emergency unfolds, a fateful art exhibition, a surreal boondoggle adventure in Belize, and a devastating personal loss conspire to force Jen to reckon with some hard truths about herself and the people she loves most.
Jessica Winter’s ferociously intelligent debut novel is a wry satire of celebrity do-goodism as well as an exploration of the difficulty of navigating friendships as they shift to accommodate marriage and family, and the unspoken tensions that can strain even the strongest bonds.
BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY: Book Thoughts
In Break in Case of Emergency, first-time novelist Jessica Winter balances an earnest, emotional exploration of her protagonist’s personal challenges with a snarky skewering of dysfunctional office culture.
After the economic collapse of 2008 and months of unemployment, Jen finally lands a job with the Leora Infinitas Foundation, or LIFt. The nonprofit’s mission to “empower women” is vaguely defined and haphazardly executed. Concepts lead to initiatives and acronyms, and splashy launches frequently lead nowhere as the board and senior management shift their short attention spans elsewhere. As her work begins to feel increasingly pointless, Jen comes to suspect that the foundation’s goals don’t extend to empowering the women of its own staff.
Jen’s not feeling particularly empowered by her life outside the office either. She has set aside her artistic ambitions largely out of economic necessity. She and her husband Jim, a high-school teacher, need both of their paychecks to pay the rent on their apartment in a not-yet-fashionable part of Brooklyn and continue their relationship with a fertility clinic for as long as necessary. Jen also struggles with love and envy of her two best friends, Pam and Meg, as she contrasts their creative and financial success with her own less promising condition.
Winter’s depiction of Jen’s workplace provides the bite of Break in Case of Emergency. The endless, fruitless meetings, the jargon, the jockeying and the suspicion that no one really knows what’s going on are familiar elements exaggerated (one hopes) for comic effect. However, it’s the rendering of Jen as a person both in and out of that workplace that makes this a smart, funny, and affecting fiction debut.
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (July 19, 2016). Shelf Awareness provided an advance reading copy of the book from the publisher and compensated for the review they received and published.
BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY: From Chapter One
“It’s hard to reproduce those kind of results if—oh, sorry,” Jen said, realizing a beat too late that the rest of the room had gone quiet.
Leora Infinitas had already taken her place at the head of the table. For one silent-screaming moment, it looked as if she were attempting to rip her own face off, but in fact she was tugging at her eyelash extensions under the placid gaze of the members of her board, who were seated in a corner conference room at the headquarters of the Leora Infinitas Foundation, also known as LIFt.
Jen scanned the other women around the jade-and-walnut table, festooned with crystal-and-bamboo vases filled with fresh-cut gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies, selected at Leora’s request for their air- filtering qualities and replaced every day, even on days when the conference room was not in use, which was most days. The other women sat in tranquil anticipation as Leora yanked with greater urgency at her right eyelid using the pincer of her thumb and forefinger, as if trying to thread a needle with her own flesh. The rain against LIFt’s floor-to-ceiling windows chattered like a gathering crowd, even as the white noise that pumped in from every ceiling at LIFt—an undulating whhooooossshhhhh, an airless air-conditioning—began to hush.
Jen shivered. Even a month into her tenure at LIFt, her body still misapprehended the whhooooossshhhhh as an Arctic blast that required shuddering adjustments to her internal thermostat.
Leora Infinitas’ lashes now lay on the tabletop before her, a squashed yet glamorous bug. Without them, Leora looked at once diminished and more beautiful. Flecks of glue balanced on her eyelids. She blinked rapidly and stared into the table, searching the lacquer for the script, the incantation, hidden below its glinting surface.
“I don’t like the idea of limiting ourselves,” Leora finally said. “I’m a big believer in not settling for twenty-four hours in a day.”