When it comes to book reviews, I have found an interesting paradox—the better a book is, the easier it becomes to write about. Words flow effortlessly, superlatives pop out of the ground like errant weeds and writing is a breeze. The same can also be said for the books which make you drag your nails along the wall. The difficult part is the book in the middle: the book is not nondescript enough to be completely forgettable, yet one that defies description.
The Herd (Ballantine Books, 2020) by Andrea Bartz is one such book. Set in present-day New York City, it centres on Eleanor Walsh, founder and owner of "The Herd", a co-working space for women and marginalised genders. Along with her are her college friends, publicist Hana Bradley, and Miki, a freelance graphic designer. Joining them is Katie Bradley, Hana's younger sister, a journalist who is coming back to New York after a failed book deal. Under pressure from her editor, Katie decides to write a behind-the-scenes expose of the founding of the Herd after misogynistic graffiti is found scrawled in their offices. Her plans are put on hold, though, when Eleanor disappears. The rest of the story is a whirlwind of twists, betrayals, and secrets being uncovered.
While it was fun to read, the book reminded me a lot about any of the Transformers films. It's packed to the gills with plot and flashy action but two days later, you struggle to remember who any of the characters were and what any of it was about. The characters in the book are paper thin, each hyper competent at their job and with enough backstory added to make them seem relatable. Hana and Katie have a strained relationship ever since Katie left to take care of their ailing mother. Katie has a secret past that she left behind in the Midwest, which is why her career is in shambles. Eleanor is seemingly perfect but underneath that veneer, there is a web of secrets and lies hiding her sinister side. The rest of the characters are just there.
It seems that the book is about feminism—the title has the letters "HER" capitalised in purple font on the book cover. Yet even this is surface level only. Aside from characters becoming occasional mouthpieces for random facts about feminism, there is nothing deeper to the message. Even the concept of marginalised genders is merely given lip service, as I can barely recall if any such character was even in the book. On the contrary, the novel seems to be hinting at the opposite—throughout the story, you see these characters betray and hurt one another, both in the past and in the present. This can best be summed up in the following line: "The one way to win, the one way to be a woman and do well in this world is to stomp on other women's backs."
Perhaps that is the underlying theme of this book and that is a failure. There are better books out there—books that stay with you, books that make you a better person. This is one you read when you want to kill some time or if you want to observe weak character writing and failures in theme. It's easy to read and not that hard to follow. My parting thought is this: when it inevitably gets made into a film or a show on Netflix, just watch that.
Zubier Abdullah is a software developer by day and writer by night. He writes these when he should be working. Find his work at https://www.zubierabdullah.me