“Wonderful things happen when passionate women and marginalized genders come together,” says Eleanor Walsh, the telegenic founder of the eponymous women’s workspace in Andrea Bartz’s campy co-working whodunit, “The Herd.” A pulpy satire of millennial corporate feminism and a parodic homage to the Wing, Bartz’s second novel explores the complexities of female friendship and the contradictory ambitions, secrets and anxieties that bond a group of New York City media “it" girls.
Plucky journalist Katie Bradley is running from a depressing year in Kalamazoo, Mich., and an unfinished book project about fake news when she applies to the exclusive women’s co-working space; Walsh, the founder and influencer-girlboss, is Katie’s sister’s best friend and PR client.
Desperate to shake off her needy literary agent, Katie devises a plan to leverage access to Eleanor and the so-called Herders for material. But just as she begins to sleuth around the Herd, Eleanor vanishes, unleashing a cascade of revelations that threaten to upend the pseudo-utopia.
Bartz has been widely hailed as a master of the “feminist thriller,” and both “The Herd” and her 2019 debut novel, “The Lost Night,” are deftly constructed page-turners starring flawed female protagonists whose successes are stymied by sexism — implicit, explicit and systemic.
In “The Herd,” as in life, with power comes online harassment. Men’s rights activists and angry trolls are obvious early suspects in the business maven’s disappearance, as is the plaintiff in a ripped-from-the-headlines gender discrimination lawsuit against her fictional venture. Bartz effectively builds tension and suspense throughout the story, though at times she relies heavily on foreshadowing or flashbacks attributed to its first-person narrators. (The novel’s point of view alternates between Katie and her older sister Hana, whose friendship with Eleanor dates to their time at Harvard.)
Still, it’s not always clear whether we should root for Bartz’s characters, whose flaws may reflect the asymmetric costs of success for women but strain any impulse toward compassion: Often they are obsessively preoccupied with insecurities about their achievements, looks and abilities in relation to their peers — the very same women they supposedly identify as allies. At their worst, they come off as ruthless, backstabbing and borderline self-obsessed. In other words, the survival instinct is not always a good look.
Bartz’s gossipy thriller is a quick, pleasant read, but “The Herd” falls short of the sharp critique its subject deserves. The problem may partly stem from how little of the story takes place in the actual co-working space, characterized in sparse details and features lifted from the Wing, rather than fully imagined as a distinct fictional site of its own.
As a result, the hellaciousness of the Herd and, more broadly, the dystopian underbelly of feminist utopia — arguably the most interesting of the novel’s themes — are left unexplored. By the end of the book, the notional centerpiece of the shared workspace feels remote, less like an overarching metaphor for how women relate to one another than a kind of borrowed set furniture.
More interesting are the Darwinian implications, hinted at in the title, of the way our interactions mirror the social instincts of animals who congregate for collective safety. Recalling the movements of deer, one of Bartz’s heroines muses that “A herd’s primary purpose is to keep the highest percentage of its members alive. Evolution doesn’t care about the individual, about survival of the least-fit. We team up for the most selfish reason possible: self-preservation.” It’s an elegant passage and an arrestingly cynical description of human relationships, if not a boon to the business of boutique office space.
Bartz is at her best in moments of heightened absurdity, and though she fumbles to articulate a critique of the Wing’s “feminism as super-brand” ethos, she can be good at revealing its thinness and hypocrisy.
“The Herd” returns over and over to the leitmotif of deception and the disparity between who people really are and how they present themselves in public (usually via Instagram). The reader is left to wonder not just if they personally find Bartz’s characters credibly likable but if they can sign onto the ultimate purpose of preserving spaces solely dedicated to “women’s empowerment.” Empowering women to do what?
Ballantine: 336 pages, $27
Tiven is a journalist, critic and poet living in Los Angeles.