- What: The Underwriting
- Who: Michelle Miller
- Pages: 369, hardcover
- Genres: Chick lit
- Published: 2015
- The lit: of 5 flames
You know the ole saying, “[Insert model name] could make a potato sack look good.” The same thing applies to literature. The oddest and most boring plots can be sexy if they’re accompanied by solid writing. The opposite is also true though, and the sexiest ideas can come across as “meh” when coupled with inadequate writing.
That’s where Michelle Miller’s mix of Silicon Valley and Wall Street has a problem. The Underwriting has a certain seduction that powers you to the finish (despite a painfully slow start) because there is so much talk (as well as the act and thinking) of sex, as well as a lot of cash money. But something’s amiss. The writing lacks vigor that’s a disappointment to a rather interesting and original plot and some provocative topics.
Fortunately for readers, Miller’s past with two polar opposites conveniently gives the story sturdy roots. As a former private banker for J.P. Morgan in Palo Alto, she managed assets for the then-new companies that turned tech nerds into money moguls in Silicon Valley (I’m looking at you, Facebook and Instagram). These two worlds of tech and finance mix in The Underwriting as it follows several characters trying to wade through the waters of their high-pressure jobs while trying to understand the other industry.
Todd Kent is an arrogant banker with the goal of becoming the youngest-ever managing director at L.Cecil. In the beginning of the novel, he’s asked directly by the CEO of location-based dating app Hook to lead the company’s IPO. With this hot app only gaining in popularity, Todd’s lofty dreams could soon turn into attainable goals.
Despite daunting demands, Hook’s pompous and presumptuous CEO, Josh, and unfathomable hours, Todd puts together the IPO in a ridiculously short timeframe with the help of his self-assembled team: Beau, a pretty boy who has connections but little penchant for work; Neha, a workaholic associate who has only the near-sighted goal of a promotion; and Tara, Todd’s old flame who suffers from anxiety while trying to obtain perfection in every aspect of her life. The IPO starts falling off the tracks though when a college student dies and signs point to a possible Hook connection.
The book tells this story through all of these different perspectives, which makes for interesting comparisons between the experiences of men and women; between tech and finance; among a fairly attractive seven, a careless two, and a smokin’ 10; and between the arrogant and the humble hardworking. While at times it’s difficult to keep up with all the different characters, this formula highlights different points of view while honing in on the similarities of demanding industries.
“They thought bankers and brokers were malicious … In reality, everyone on Wall Street was just too focused on his piece of sand to see the bigger picture.” — The Underwriting
Adding in suspense through a young girl’s death further lifts this book. The who, how, and impact of her death will pique your interest and have you putting on your sleuth cap. It also feels incredibly relevant with dating apps even more prevalent in today’s society than they were when this story was first released. To read about some of the dangers they present made the book realistic and chillingly familiar.
However, this thrill merely rounds out the sharp edges of cheesiness that come from the writing; it doesn’t completely erase them. While an interesting plot was present, the language had me feeling pretty blasé about this book in general.
Kirkus Review remarks that “some of the scenes and characters feel clichéd,” and that’s why I found myself rolling my eyes from time to time. Kirkus gives The Underwriting more credit than I’m willing to give though: “[However, other scenes] are intelligently observed, with fresh, well-paced dialogue in which characters deliver lines like, ‘There’s a difference between unemotional sex that’s respectful and transactional sex that’s orchestrated by an app.'”
Yes, the characters — who, in general, are assholes — have some good one-liners, but these phrases don’t balance out the rest of the writing. Parts of it feel elementary with only a zip of jargon to pick it up.
The story of how The Underwriting came about could be the most interesting part about the novel, which says more about Miller as a creative and entrepreneur than about the book’s flaws. The story started out as a weekly online series that eventually morphed into a book deal. In an interview with Elle, Miller stated that she had studied people’s working habits in high-stress jobs and learned that because they worked 16 hours a day, the last thing they wanted to do when they got home was pick up a book.
“So my idea was always how do you bring fiction into the work environment? How do you almost transform the analyst pod into a modern day book club?” she said.
Miller also didn’t have a traditional book deal. She went the venture capitalist route to fund her project, and it worked. In a world where book deals are becoming increasingly more difficult to procure, Miller sought out something new, something that I hope other writers take on.
Seriously, if nothing else, read this Elle interview. Miller is clearly an intelligent and creative individual who knows her audience and how to spawn her past experience into a new tale. Her writing might not be the best, but she’s an interesting character — more so than some of her own — who gives you permission to be voyeuristic.
“And that perfect, happy life you told us we’d have if we just worked hard and took out student loans and went to college: those dreams weren’t real. We gave up our childhoods to become successful adults, and now that we’re here we discover it is all a lie.” — The Underwriting