Startup: A Novel - Doree Shafrir

It's hard to give a thumbnail pitch for this book -- my gut wants to compare it to Coupland's Microserfs, just because I liked that so much. But it's more like a feminist Po Bronson's The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, I think. It's been about 20 years since I read that, and my memory is more than fuzzy on the details. It's about web/app-based companies in New York and the strange (especially to outsiders) culture that surrounds them. You don't have to know a lot about tech -- or venture capitalism -- to appreciate this, however. You just have to know about people.


Because at the end of the day, this book isn't really about startup culture, apps or technology -- it's about people. There are 5 central characters -- and a couple that hover around central -- to this book, and yes, they're all involved with startups, but that's just where they happen to be. You could set this novel in the Wall Street culture of the mid 80's and not have to change much about it at all, because the relationships, the people are what matter -- not the industries/subcultures they're in.


You've got Mack McAllister -- the driving force and face of TakeOff -- an app promoting mindfulness, happiness and productivity; he seems pretty harmless (initially, anyway), but gets reckless with money and sloppy with interpersonal issues -- when that starts to snowball out of control, he then crosses the line into something worse. Isabel is in charge of Engagement and Marketing for TakeOff, she had a little thing with Mack awhile ago, but has started to see someone else recently. Sabrina works for Isabel, is ten years her senior, but has just got back in the workforce after having kids -- she's got some money problems and a husband that seems to be checked out of the relationship and parenting. His name is Dan, and he's an editor for a Tech News website -- he's pretty oblivious to a lot, really (like his wife's problems) and the crush he has on one of his reporters (actually, he may be very aware of that, come to think of it). Her name is Katya, the child of Russian immigrants -- a hungry reporter, trying to figure out just how to make it in the world where journalism is judged by quantifiable results (views, shares, retweets). Katya needs a break, and stumbles upon a story about Mack -- and Isabel -- and this could be the thing to solidify her position at the news site.


That's all you really need to know going in -- actually, I knew far less, so that's more than you need to know. You take those people and their goals, their problems -- but 'em in a blender and this book comes out. It's pretty easy to see how -- the part that isn't obvious is how Shafrir accomplishes this. She does it by: 1. making these all very relatable characters, with strengths and weaknesses; 2. by making even the villains of the piece not that villain-y (I'm not saying, for example, that Mack is a paragon of virtue -- he does some horrible things, but he never sets out to be horrible, he just ends up that way); 3. by making the heroes of the piece not all that heroic -- just people trying to do (and keep) their jobs, while not screwing up the rest of their life.


I love the fact that Sabrina and Katya are both pretty serious grammar Nazis who find themselves in jobs where they have to do so much that violates grammar -- it's a nice touch, and I enjoyed their reactions to poor grammar. Similarly, Katya's attitude toward smoking is a lot of fun to read about -- but not really something you want to inculcate to kids, or even see in someone in real life.


This is Shafrir's first novel, but she's been writing for forever -- most notably as an online journalist. She knows the world she's depicting, she's lived it and wrote about it -- this is just a barely fictionalized version of her reality, so it reeks of authenticity. I have no doubt I could find people very much like her main characters without trying very hard if I put myself in the right cities. She's not so close to this world that she can't comment on it, nor is she so close to it that she's bitter, nasty and cynical about it.


There's a very slow build to this book -- around the 40% mark, I noticed that while I was enjoying the book, appreciating the writing, and so on -- I wasn't really "hooked" by it, I wasn't invested in any of the characters, which I thought was odd. So, I resolved to make note of when it happened, to see if it was an event, or a development with a character or whatever that prompted it. By the time I hit 80%, the hook was set (it happened well before then, but don't ask me where), but there wasn't anything that I could point to that did it. Just slowly but surely, these people and their individual struggles wormed their way into my subconscious. Which is a great way for a book to be -- not that I mind those that hook you from the start, or those that a have a big, dramatic moment that grabs you -- but those that gradually get you without you noticing.


The ending sneaks up on you -- I really didn't realize the novel ended when it did -- I got to the words "Acknowledgements" on the next page before I realized that the book had ended. I really liked the way it ended (once I figured out it happened), even if I found the last sentence annoying. I still do, actually -- but I see what she was going for and she achieved it. But I still would've liked a few more pages to follow that last sentence.


I can't help feeling like I should have a lot more to say about this book -- but I can't figure out how to do so without giving everything away. So I'd better leave it by saying that I really liked these people, Shafrir's writing, and the way she told a story. Startup was honest, heart-felt, compassionate, and real -- this debut is as strong as it is winning. I hope to read more from Shafrir in the future.


Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this.