Help Wanted by Adelle Waldman: book review

Help Wanted by Adelle Waldman

Overview: Town Square is a massive corporation that has a million microcosms scattered across the country. This book focuses on one store in this big box chain located in Potterstown, New York, a struggling upstate community that gets a bump from annual summer traffic. More specifically, the book focuses on the Movement team that unloads the trucks and breaks out the goods in the store and the drama and connections that unfold among the members as a shake-up in management opens new opportunities for the team. With a large cast of tight-knit characters, this book dives into the dying world of the big box store and the people who depend on their survival. Overall: 4

Characters: 4 All of the characters in this book are likable in a way that you'll be very familiar with if you've ever worked a retail or service job. The team covers a massive span of ages and life experiences, and dealing with difficult situations at work help everyone come together in ways they might not in other situations–something I've definitely experienced. Waldman does a good job of bringing out the endearing side of everyone in the novel. We do get small glimpses into everyone outside of work as the book progresses, but their personalities are largely revealed in the context of working in the store. 

My only complaint with the characters in this book is that we don't get particularly close to any of them. They definitely go beyond the archetypes they embody, but there's still a definite feeling of staying stuck on the surface that comes across. They always felt held at an arms length in a way that I wished we could break past. This is more owing to the style of the book than anything. I also think that having such a big cast and Waldman wanting to show the bonds forged by the lower-level team members contrasted against what was going on in the multiple management levels above them that influence their lives and plans. Trying to do it all in one book certainly works, but there are sacrifices made when it comes to depth.

Plot: 4 By virtue of this book being entirely set within (basically) a Target, the novel is somewhat quiet by default. It's a small world full of internal, personal stakes that need tapped into to spin a story. Still, Waldman attempts a high-stakes feeling as the book centers around the Movement team's plot to get their horrible boss a promotion (shocker) to open a management position for one of them. Covering up her faults as a manager will require extreme coordination, and the tension around who will fill the empty management role tests all of them. While the conceit of the book does feel quite manufactured, it does work. I read the book pretty quickly and wanted to keep picking it up. I would've been interested in the inner-workings of the team without the major arc too, and I think the readability comes down to the writing in the end, but I understand the need to inject a sense of structure into it. I do also respect that Waldman attempts to subvert expectations with her ending, even if it doesn't make the tidiest, most satisfying conclusion.

Writing: 4 I'm so torn about how I feel about the writing of this book! When I really think about it, I have a few qualms with choices that were made. On the other hand, it was so easy to read and didn't actually get in the way of enjoying the story. I'd rather it be compulsively readable than technically sound in the end, but there are certain parts of it that did stand out to me as odd as I read. 

The biggest one is the amount of head hopping in this novel. The novel is told in third person, but the style feels more like third person limited, falling deeply into one character's mind at a time, than a true omniscient. Most of the chapters are in the head of a single character, allowing us to experience the same familiar store and battle for the new positions from different points of view. This is great. What's not as great is that every few chapters, there are randomly scenes where we jump from our main character of the chapter's head into another character's head for a few lines and then another character and then back to the main character. This is a bit jarring when it happens, and I wish, since we get so many different character points of view throughout the book, that we kept in one head per chapter. These moments of break felt like Waldman not knowing how else to clue the reader into some bit of information within the current point of view and needing a bandaid.

My other note about the writing is that there's a lot of telling. Even in the middle of a conversation in scene, there will be chunky paragraphs that summarize another big piece of the conversation or add in a big piece of information that the character is apparently thinking during the scene. Again, this just felt like info-dumping for the sake of not knowing how else to feed the reader that information. I wasn't hugely turned off by it, and I understand that she's telling a compressed timeline story in a very limited-scope setting that also has tons of important context. Sometimes, you just need to tell the readers things. It didn't impact how vividly I experienced Town Square and its crew in my mind, but it does contribute a bit to the flatness that exists within the novel. 

I don't want to take away with all this, though, that this is a really interesting book that I enjoyed reading! I would definitely recommend it, especially for getting out of a slump. I was a bit dubious about how it would turn out when I heard Waldman pitch it at LATFOB, but I'm glad I picked it up. 

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Funny Story review

Big Summer Library Haul

May 2024 Reading Wrap Up

This Must Be The Place review

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