Thursday, February 20, 2020

Book 221: Sophia of Silicon Valley



"Minutes later, my phone rang. I knew it was Scott calling about the Time cover, so I hesitated to answer—one ring, two rings, three. I knew if I didn’t pick up the phone, though, forcing Scott to hold in his anger, he would really blow an epic gasket when the inevitable happened. Better to let him yell now. As I slowly brought the cell phone up to my ear, I could already hear him screaming." 

Dates read: April 3-6

Rating: 2/10

I'm always a little skeptical when a book (or movie, or whatever) tries to sell itself as the next [insert popular title here]. I understand why they do it...if you compare your work to a super hit, you'll catch the eye of people who loved that thing. But it so often sets the consumer up for disappointment. It usually winds up that the thing that people loved about the initial product wasn't its subject, themes, or plot, but something about the voice, or its unexpectedness, or the style. Even though I've been burned, though, I often can't help myself from picking up something that's described as an "if you loved" for one of my favorites.

When I saw the pitch for Anna Yen's Sophia of Silicon Valley as a "The Devil Wears Prada meets the tech industry", I was intrigued. Silicon Valley, with its constant promises of disruption and reinvention and outsized personalities, is ripe for satire. Yen, like ex-Vogue-assistant Lauren Weisberger before her, has insider bona fides: she came through stints at Pixar and Tesla, and continues to work in the field. Maybe it's the latter that keeps the book from reaching the heights of Prada, or indeed, any heights at all. This book isn't just not great, it's actively bad.

Sophia Young, our extremely-thinly-veiled author insert, is the younger daughter of wealthy Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco. She has type 1 diabetes, which she mentions more often than Stacy does in The Babysitters Club, and is therefore babied by the parents she's returned to live with after college. She starts work in finance, but when it turns out the glamour she'd hoped for in this field doesn't materialize, her interest flags and she's fired shortly thereafter. With the help of a friend, she gets a job as a paralegal at a prestigious law firm for a demanding partner (despite having no training for the role) and finds that she enjoys and is good at the work. Even with long hours, she meets a guy she likes and they find time to build a relationship, and Sophia starts dreaming about their future. Then she meets Scott Kraft, one of the firm's clients, who's starting up an animated film studio called Treehouse with a first feature about toys who come alive, and her world turns upside down.

Scott hires Sophia to come on to Treehouse to do investor relations and assist with the launching of the company's initial public offering. Scott, always in his trademark black turtleneck, is demanding and often unreasonable but a genius at what he does and not without a sense of humor, and Sophia learns from him as she spends a couple years with the company. The first boyfriend dumps her after their relationship deteriorates, but she meets another one not too long after, a handsome doctor who understands her crazy schedule and devotion to her career. The industry moves too quickly for Sophia to settle down in either her personal or professional lives, though, and after two years she makes a jump to an up-and-coming company called Ion, which makes cars and has a side line working on a space launch. Can she develop a relationship with CEO Andre Stark like the one she had with Scott? Will her relationship survive the tumult? Will she ever be like her sister and have a family of her own?

In a book like this, the protagonist needs to be relatable. The reader needs to feel like she's seeing this strange world through outsider eyes, needs to like and root for the heroine to prevail. And in this, it was an abysmal failure for me. Sophia starts out from a position of enormous privilege: her parents are rich, willing to support her, and their home is literally featured in magazines. She can afford to fail, so there's nothing really riding on her success except for her own sense of self-worth, which isn't nothing but also isn't very high stakes. On top of that, she's kind of awful. She calls her friends in the middle of their workdays to brag about the opulent hotels she stays at for work and sulks when none of them want to coo over it. Her opposing desires to find a husband and have kids and to professionally achieve at the highest level are understandable and something many women in their 20s and 30s go through, but she doesn't seem to want both at the same time as much as she wants one and then the other and punishes the men she dates for either not committing or trying to hold her back depending on how she feels that day. I found her deeply irritating.

On top of that, the promised "satire" and "humor" never develops. She doesn't take the piss out of the Steve Jobs or Elon Musk stand-ins, she hero-worships them (particularly the former) and excuses their bad behavior as a side product of their intelligence and innovation. There's never a sense that she finds them or the industry as a whole ridiculous. She plays nothing for laughs, nor does she puncture any bubbles. That Yen continues to be a player in the field almost certainly plays into her unwillingness to poke at its uncomfortable spots...she doesn't want to upset her own apple cart. And while keeping your eye on your own bottom line is understandable, don't try to sell your uninspired writing as a hilarious send-up if you're not willing to spill a little tea. I hated this book and do not recommend it to anyone.

One year ago, I was reading: The Silkworm (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Selfish Gene

Three years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Four years ago, I was reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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