Amazon describes Sad Desk Salad as The Devil Wears Prada for the twenty-teens. Author Jessica Grose has even jokingly called it The Devil Wears Sweatpants. The book’s title is a reference to the official lunch of choice for yuppie desk drones everywhere (from what I can tell, this meme came after the book, but I had to laugh in self-recognition). Grose’s tale is a not-quite roman à clef of her days as a dozen-posts-a-day blogger for Jezebel (or so she says), but it offers up intimate and often biting commentary on the late 2000s and early 2010s online media world.
Grose says the book is meant to be an updated portrait of what it’s like to have an entry-level-job-in-New-York-City-media: Bright Lights, Big City was just as much an inspiration as the 2003 The Devil Wears Prada, based on author Lauren Weisberger’s experiences working under Anna Wintour (and made into a fabulous movie of the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway).
Sad Desk Salad chronicles a week-in-the-life of Alex Lyons, a glued-to-the-couch, muumuu-clad copy monkey for a women’s gossip website. Alex is tasked with feeding the daily beast dozens of bite-sized witticisms on celebrities and assorted news of the weird in the name of the all-mighty page view. When she receives her most salacious tip yet — a sex tape of a Tiger Mom-like socialite’s daughter — her moral mettle is tested by the wilds of the web. Her job, personal relationships and the esteem of readers and colleagues are all suddenly on the line.
The good: Having personally experienced the feed-the-internet beast pressure in previous day jobs (and having friends who still do), it’s difficult to objectively gauge the effectiveness of its satire for the lay reader who isn’t as familiar with that world. Grose portrays a sense of humor about her experiences that can only come from a healthy distance. More often than not, she skewers the media gossip blog world and the characters in it with a salad spinner, not an axe. Alex’s neuroses often border on obnoxious; Grose clearly doesn’t coddle her leading lady. And Alex’s hard-charging editor, Moira, ruthless in her quest for page views and upper management accolades, is hardly a clear-cut villain. There’s enough satire to appeal to the reader who can appreciate fictionalized social commentary but wouldn’t otherwise pick up something that looks vaguely chick-litty. But a tiny bit of earnestness in this salad’s dressing tempers its cynicism and provides a satisfying ending, too.
The not-so-good: I got through this one without the chick-lit cringe I get when I read characters who sound like they could be on Dawson’s Creek, use phrases like “just the same” too many times, or suffer through all-too-familiar plot lines hoping they’ll take a turn for the clever. It helps that Alex already has a man — a live-in boyfriend named Peter who works in finance — so the quest for one isn’t at all a part of the narrative. While it was refreshing to read a chick-lit novel that portrays the challenge of maintaining an already decent relationship rather than the struggle to land one, it felt a bit too much like a page from DWP. It doesn’t help that the beaus in both books are patently unlikable. Aside from one insightful exchange about the moral relativism of their respective jobs, Peter’s concern for Alex seemed too paternal for me to take their partnership seriously. The story would have held up just fine without him.
Cheese-o-meter: A couple of sad salad bar parmesan sprinkles here and there, courtesy of the aforementioned boyfriend.
Writerly lessons: You kill more flies — and win more readers’ hearts — with honey when writing what you know. Disciplined satire makes for a more satisfying read than a full-throttled sendup. Kudos to Grose.