“The Whisper Network” by Chandler Baker is part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club and it did not disappoint. It kind of reads like “Big Little Lies,” but instead of Australia, it was in Texas and instead of moms in the schoolyard, it was working women with a variety of backgrounds. It also gives a mental picture of the movie “Nine to Five,” where women band together to take down a sexist boss, but while the movie can be seen as funny, this story can be all too real for some women.
“The Whisper Network” follows Grace, Sloane, Rosalita and Ardie. All of them work under Ames Garrett, a character that almost every woman reader will know. The kind of guy who sleeps with you and then makes you out to be crazy or uses his place of power to his advantage. The line that could best sum him up is, “How did we know when the behavior was inappropriate? We just did.”
Rosalita is a single mom and a cleaning woman for the big office, Truviv, Inc., who often gets overlooked. The other three women are some of the top lawyers in the company. Sloane, a mother of a bullied 10-year-old, has a strained relationship with her boss. Ardie, a divorcee who is the mother of a 4-year-old, has a “take no s***” and “be blunt” attitude when it comes to everything. Grace is a struggling new mother who believes that the rumors about their boss couldn’t be true since he’s always been nice to her.
Baker also uses the women’s children as other examples of sexism and mental health. Sloane’s socially awkward daughter, Abigail, is being bullied and even though boys seem to be picking on her, she’s the only one getting in trouble for retaliating. The argument the school makes about the boys behavior is that they were “just having some fun”; “it was a joke”; “boys will be boys.” Baker weaves this into the story flawlessly and draws parallels between Sloane’s office and Abigail’s school staff. On the flip side, there is Grace, who just had a baby named Emma-Kate. She thought that motherhood would be like joining the “biggest sorority of them all,” but found that sleepless nights and constant breastfeeding are not things she can easily cope with. She feels immense guilt about the possibility of loving her job more than her daughter, and although it isn’t said outright, her mental health is deteriorating quickly. Baker does a great job by not pitting any of these women against each other as a “good mom” or “bad mom”; rather, she paints them realistically as working moms who do the best with their resources.
Three things set off a major chain of events. The first being the CEO of Truviv unexpectedly dies, making Ames in the perfect position to snag it for himself. Just as this happens, a new woman from Boston, Cathrine, begins at the firm and starts to have a suspicious relationship with Ames. Lastly, there is a “B.A.D. Men” list going around the offices of Dallas, and someone has added Ames’ name. The women feel that they cannot let Ames rise to power while they know the way he acts behind closed doors and the way he abuses his power to get what he wants while putting other people – especially women – down. This all starts a series of events that lead to one character’s death. While this is happening, Rosalita is just trying to get her son Solomon into the best school in the city, but all of the sudden her paycheck gets cut in half, leaving her scrambling for resources. The death in “The Whisper Network” happens about two-thirds of the way through, which I liked because it left plenty of room for buildup, commentary and background while also leaving enough time for the reader to know what happened afterward and how it affected everyone involved.
Seeing all these women come together was both empowering and heartbreaking, mostly because even though they were in a group they were still struggling to be believed. There are depositions, cross-examinations and police interviews all throughout the story that keeps you guessing until the end. Something I seriously loved was this chorus at the beginning that wasn’t a voice of a character but the general voice of women and the things we are put through in American society. These include: “We felt guilty if we weren’t feeling guilty enough, so much so that we began to take pride in this ability to function under moral conflict,” and “We never understood the tendency to underestimate us, we who had been baptized and delivered through pain, who grinned and bore agonies while managing to draw on wing-tipped eyeliner with a surgically steady hand.” These pages and commentaries were blended in so perfectly that the reader can forget that it’s not a character that’s speaking.
This is the perfect book to come out in the #MeToo movement. It discusses corporate environments, voices based on facts and a plethora of real-life horrors that can resonate with almost all women. If someone herself hasn’t experienced sexism or harassment outright, she knows someone who has. Even though this book resonates more with women, men should read it as well because it gives great insight into the trials women have to go through on a daily basis that never seem to let up. The way these four women are treated, the way they are spoken to, looked at, criticized and even feel are all part of the commentary about sexism, discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse. The women are flawed and keep their own secrets, but it challenges the reader on their perceptions of feminism, sexism, harassment, discrimination and more. This also begs the question of what makes a woman “worthy” of being believed? The message of the book is clear: women need to stop whispering and warning each other and instead speak out, be bold and demand better using their outside voices.