WT was kind enough to forward me this review of Saira Rao's Chambermaid, the novel about clerking at the Third Circuit written by someone who clerked at the Third Circuit. WT was presumably prompted by the fact that I had informed him that I was reading the book and that it wasn't very good. The review is absolutely vicious and, sadly, more or less accurate.
While I'm not nearly as indignant about the book as Grimmelmann is, I agree that it's a shoddy piece of work and an utter disappointment. I won't catalogue my specific gripes here, focusing instead on broader structural failures. It's one of those rare books that misses every single one of its targets. It doesn't paint a very interesting picture of life behind the bench. It doesn't even bother explaining much of what goes on in the world of judges and law clerks. The characters don't exhibit an inch of growth or depth. They're uniformly shallow and unlikeable. The main character is dripping with suburban elitism from the very beginning, and manages to cling to it for all 270 pages despite living in the shadiest part of Philadelphia and peppering her narration with snide comments about Republicans and conservative justices. The characters don't act, they react. The story is written like a sitcom pilot rather than a novel.
The "boss from hell" stuff -- one of the book's main marketing points as as it struggled to cast itself as The Devil Wears Prada: Law Clerk Edition -- isn't even that bad. The hours are eminently reasonable, and the judge forgets all of her draconian orders as soon as she makes them, leaving the clerks free to live life more or less as they please. For example, when the judge catches the main character sneaking out to interview for her dream job at the ACLU and tells her she can't go, the main character... goes anyway! She lands the job on the spot and suffers absolutely no adverse consequences for playing hooky from work. Not exactly exposé material here, folks.
The forgettable story would be fine if the book was funny, which it isn't. The humor is forced, uncomfortable even, and the analogies are grossly overplayed. The final chapter, a slapstick account of a shivas that comes screaming out of left field, unambiguously confirms the author's lack of comedic vision. After neatly resolving every single conflict in the penultimate chapter, the author is so desperate for a punchline that she concludes with a bunch of jokes about elderly people and their wacky incontinence.
All in all, like a bad summer comic book movie, this was a book with a built-in audience and a lot of marketing hooks that failed to deliver. A wasted opportunity for what could have been a very entertaining and enlightening story.