Book Review - The Other Black Girl
It can be difficult to find a riveting, original book that also contains social commentary, mystery, humor, and thought-provoking examination of race relations in the workplace, but Harris’ debut novel checks all these boxes. The plot is complicated and fresh, so do yourself a favor and avoid reviews and spoilers that give away the plot and just start reading this book that was the buzz of 2021 and is still circling. But do be aware: an original plot isn’t always an easy plot, so part of the fun is challenging yourself to catch all the nuances and little details that emerge from flashbacks. That kind of attention to detail will draw you in more and make you feel even more invested and “in” on the “gotcha” moments.
We’ve had snarky “tell-all” books about the publishing world before (think The Devil Wears Prada), and indeed Harris worked at Knopf Doubleday before leaving to write the novel, a background that lends realism and credibility to the setting and story. Just like at Vogue, young editorial assistants are exploited and expected to give up their lives for the company and be at the beck and call of the senior editorial staff.
Nella Rogers is 26 and has worked for Wagner Books for two years. In the 80s, Wagner published a sensation of a novel by a Black female writer, and Nella was a huge fan of that book, so it’s one of the main reasons Wagner was her dream workplace. But another part of the plot is what happened to the editor (and best friend of the author), who hasn’t been heard from since that book’s success. Nella gets along fine, but she certainly notices the microaggressions and the sense of her “otherness” that is in the air but is determined to work harder to combat it all. For example, she was asked to helm some diversity meetings, only to receive the following comment in her performance review: “I wish you’d put half the effort you put into those extracurricular diversity meetings into working on the core requirements.” But Nella was never told the diversity meetings were “extracurricular.” This will be eye-opening for some readers and sadly familiar for others.
Nella, who grew up in suburban Connecticut, has a white boyfriend she loves and lives with, a best friend who is on her side, and a low-key style. Even with her challenges, she believes she is making progress and contributing to the organization. But then Hazel enters. Hazel is not low-key--she is confident, flashy, worldly, and instantly a sensation and influencer at Wagner (and beyond). Nella and Hazel are very different women, so one would think this company has room for them both… but does it? Is Nella’s more laid-back and reserved style, which she thought worked, an actual issue?
Hazel is assigned a cubicle near Nella, and from day one serves as a powerful, conflicting symbol of camaraderie, competition, confusion, and fury as Nella is no longer the only Black woman in at the table. Nella has been torturing herself and going back and forth about whether to tell her boss, Vera, that a character in their prized (i.e., money-making) author’s new novel is a horrible stereotype of a Black woman. Of course, Hazel encourages Nella to speak up, she does, it doesn’t go well, as the white writer feels attacked, and Nella is left wondering what the heck is going on. The reader cringes as the gaslighting of Nella increases, and a mystery begins when she starts getting anonymous notes left on her desk that are always some iteration of “leave Wagner now.” Is Hazel leaving the notes? The mystery is ON.
One of the clever things the book does is make the reader question who is doing life as a young Black woman “right”: Nella or Hazel. And it shifts back and forth, so it’s really ingenious because the reader may end up feeling gaslit as well. Who is the hero? Does it have to be the same for everyone?
The ending can go either way, depending on the reader. Some may declare that certain characters sold out, and others will ask “well, who could blame them?” It’s a hard call. Some readers may be devastated for a character and others may be relieved at their outcome. That’s just more proof of the originality in this novel’s pages. Harris’ book is clever and full of mystery, sardonic commentary, and a hard-driven plot.