In her early thirties, Jen has all but abandoned a once-promising painting career when she takes a poorly defined job at a feminist nonprofit. The Leora Infinitis Foundation—or LIFt—claims to empower women, but staffers spend all their time devising acronyms for imaginary programs, ruthlessly undermining one another, and stroking the ego of their boss, a larger-than-life celebrity philanthropist.
Stuck in this passive-aggressive hellscape, Jen struggles with insecurity, especially when she compares herself to her two best friends, Meg and Pam—one a wealthy attorney with a picture-perfect family, the other a passionately committed artist. When the personal and the professional begin to collide in the course of a fateful art exhibition, a surreal business trip, and a devastating loss, it forces Jen to reckon with some hard truths about herself and the people she loves most.
About the Author
Jessica Winter is features editor at Slate and the former culture editor of Time. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications.
Read an Excerpt
Our Focus Is Focus Itself
Leora Infinitas had already taken her place at the head of the table. For one silent-screaming moment, it looked as if she were attempting to rip her own face off, but in fact she was tugging at her eyelash exten- sions under the placid gaze of the members of her board, who were seated in a corner conference room at the headquarters of the Leora Infinitas Foundation, also known as LIFt.
Jen scanned the other women around the jade-and-walnut table, festooned with crystal-and-bamboo vases filled with fresh-cut gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies, selected at Leora’s request for their air- filtering qualities and replaced every day, even on days when the conference room was not in use, which was most days. The other women sat in tranquil anticipation as Leora yanked with greater urgency at her right eyelid using the pincer of her thumb and forefinger, as if trying to thread a needle with her own flesh. The rain against LIFt’s floor-to-ceiling windows chattered like a gathering crowd, even as the white noise that pumped in from every ceiling at LIFt—an undulating whhooooossshhhhh, an airless air-conditioning—began to hush.
Jen shivered. Even a month into her tenure at LIFt, her body still misapprehended the whhooooossshhhhh as an Arctic blast that required shuddering adjustments to her internal thermostat.
Leora Infinitas’s lashes now lay on the tabletop before her, a squashed yet glamorous bug. Without them, Leora looked at once diminished and more beautiful. Flecks of glue balanced on her eyelids. She blinked rapidly and stared into the table, searching the lacquer for the script, the incantation, hidden below its glinting surface.
Rain shattered against the windows, the applause track of a sitcom. A head nodded; a pair of lips buzzed “Mmm.”
A pen tapping on the table stilled itself. The flowers stood beguiled in their vases.
“Whhooo is to say,” intoned Donna, the board chair and one of Leora’s closest friends, “that there are not twenty-five hours in a day?” “Ha, right, who decided that, anyway?” asked board member Sunny, who was also Leora’s personal assistant.
“We always said we’d have a start-up mentality,” Leora said. She peered down at the squashed eyelash bug. Soundlessly, Sunny materialized at her side, palmed it into a cupped tissue, and evanesced back into her seat.
“Start-ups never sleep,” Leora continued. “Metaphorically speaking.” “Totally,” Sunny said, nodding with her entire head and neck, the tissue of squashed eyelash bug clasped in her hand. Totally was some- thing Sunny said a lot whenever Leora spoke. Sunny’s totally was so total that it became two words. Toe tally.
“But at the same time, why bother doing everything if you’re not doing everything in. The right. Way,” Leora asked.
“Mmmmm,” Sunny moaned.
Donna squared her shoulders. “I think that, right now, at this moment in the young history of LIFt—and especially at this perilous moment in our global economy—our focus is focus itself,” she said. Her voice was deep and stern, the vowels round and sonorous as church bells. Her hands sculpted the air. Multiple bangles on each of her wrists clinked together in a wind chime of assent. “But shining a light
Sunny was slow-motion headbanging.
“We must focus on those projects that feel most immediate to us,” Donna continued.
“This sensation of the year two thousand and nine leaping bravely into spring after such a bitter winter—what does that feel like? Let’s capture it; let’s hold that moment and transform it. We can return to other, more timeless ideas later—a wellspring of creativity that will nourish us when we feel depleted from giving birth to our first idea-children. And we cannot be afraid.”
“I love it!” Sunny said, clenching a fist to her sternum. “Donna, you are amazing.”
“Karina,” Leora said imperiously to LIFt’s executive director, seated to her right. “What would you prioritize?”
Karina, who had been raking her fingers through her hair and then twisting the strands, raking and twisting, tossed her hair over her shoulder and widened her eyes, as if absorbing the shock and import of a happy epiphany. “I’m going to second what you’re saying, Leora: focus, focus, focus,” she said. “The only way we can possibly limit our- selves is by taking on too much at once. We’re empowering ourselves by making the choice to make choices. The newness of the foundation and the uncertainty of the historical moment—we can see them as dares. Dares to be bold, dares to make decisions and own those decisions.”
Jen stifled a smile and looked down at her open notebook, where she’d written board meeting notes with her fountain pen and gradually added serifs and flourishes until the letters became a row of gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies. From the first time they’d met, Jen recognized Karina as a master of the filibuster, but she hadn’t yet seen Karina cast the spell on Leora—the gift of shrouding any and every topic in a fluffy word cloud of reiterative agreement until the original query was swallowed up in the woozy vapor of resounding enthusiasm for an unstated but sublime goal.
Karina shook her head wonderingly and peered into a dazzling middle distance, taking in a new horizon line. “I’m really jazzed about this,” she said. “I can’t wait.”
Jen closed the notebook, rose, and began to leave the room, but hov- ered at the head of the table beside Leora. She had resolved to hover in awkward mid-stride, resulting in a slight lurching motion that stirred up a gruesomely intact memory of balking on the pitcher’s mound in Little League, with the bases loaded, on ball four. Jen had not yet been introduced to Leora, and keenly wanted to introduce herself now, but just as keenly wanted not to disrupt Leora’s Oaxaca anecdote, which involved a surreally vivid dream—induced by a midnight snack of chapulines and chocolate mole—wherein a mercado stall reassembled itself as an animatronic giant and began clank-clanking toward Leora, embroidered tunics and colorful straw handbags winging down from its bionic shoulders in a confetti of symbolism.
“You know, mercado, machines, merchandise, mechanical reproduction—the moment was just so rich in meaning,” Leora was saying. “I don’t have the machinery to deconstruct it.”
“Haha wow,” Sunny said.
Swaying on her feet, Jen tried to catch Karina’s eye to plead mutely for an assist. But in each of the rapt faces around the table, Jen recognized the temporary tunnel vision that she herself had adapted and perfected in high school as an overtaxed waitress at a casual-dining franchise. She arranged a grin on her face that was intended to convey merry diffidence and backed out of the room.
Jen flopped theatrically into the chair behind her desk. “Wait, I have no idea why I just did that,” she said. “I’ve been sitting for days.” She stood up, then sat down again, more daintily.
“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Daisy said. “You only infiltrated a board meeting.”
Daisy was flipping through a perfect-bound, magazinelike tome titled Fur-Lined Teacup: Animals • Fashion • Feminism. The cover depicted, against a white backdrop, an impassive Russian blue cat in a trilby.
“I infiltrated nothing—they just needed someone to take notes,” Jen said. “And it would be my honor to talk about it. Leora broke her toe paragliding in Turks and Caicos, which her guru told her was a metaphor for a fundamental incompatibility between her jingmai and her luomai, so when the nail falls off her toe she has to wear it in a titanium locket around her neck until Mercury enters Virgo. Karina was at a party with the Russian billionaire who is building the cyborg clone of himself, and he asked her what she was going to bequeath to her brain in her will and she said ‘fish oil,’ and then he asked her out on a date. Donna bought a tapestry in Siem Reap and had it made into a pantsuit. Sunny has a new pizza stone.”
Daisy tore out a page from Fur-Lined Teacup and handed it to Jen. It depicted a llama lounging in a square gazebo, reading a book.
“Is that llama wearing bifocals?” Jen asked, rubbing her fingers along the creamy, textured paper stock.
“Are they all still talking about the financial apocalypse?” Daisy asked.
“Of course,” Jen said, handing the page back to Daisy. “All anyone ever does is talk about the financial apocalypse. Sunny is putting some money into gold. Leora said she’s still considering letting a couple of her house staff go because of the financial apocalypse.”
“Do you think she’ll let us go because of the financial apocalypse?” Daisy asked, picking up a pair of scissors.
“Not if we keep looking busy,” Jen said, watching as Daisy cut a careful silhouette around the bookish llama’s ears.
Excerpted from "Break in Case of Emergency"
Copyright © 2017 Jessica Winter.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
The questions that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about Break in Case of Emergency, Jessica Winter’s sharp and compelling novel about the inner politics of a feminist start-up helmed by a washed-up celebrity, and how one employee struggles to integrate into its culture.
1. The conversation around how to define feminism has become a cultural hot topic in recent years. Explore this phenomenon alongside the mission of LIFt. How does feminism become a commodity in the world of Leora Infinitas? How does this relate to the rise in feminist-related products or endorsements in the media today? Why does Leora reject feminism for “humanism”?
2. Financial security, or lack thereof, plays an important role in Break in Case of Emergency. Discuss the points of the novel wherein Jen’s class consciousness affects her well-being. How does financial insecurity affect her relationship with her friends? Her colleagues? Jim? When is she most acutely aware of how her relationship with money differs from that of her peers?
3. The culture of LIFt is heavily satirized, yet it is grounded in the realities of the modern workplace. Describe the office culture of LIFt—the language they use, the interactions between employees, and the expectations from management. How does Jen’s attitude toward LIFt fluctuate over the course of the novel? When does Jen conform to their standards, and why?
4. How female friendships evolve over time is an important component of Break in Case of Emergency. How would you describe the relationships between Jen, Meg, and Pam? What binds their friendships? How do their relationships change over the course of the novel? After Jen and Pam stop talking, how does Meg act as a conduit between them?
5. Mental health is a through-line in Break in Case of Emergency. At what points in the novel does Jen’s inner monologue seem brushed by depression and anxiety? How does she counteract the effects of her illness?
6. Describe Jen and Jim’s relationship. What comforts are afforded by their marriage? Why do you think Jen fought with Jim before the LIFt party? By the end of the novel, how did you interpret the health of their marriage?
7. Discuss Jen and Daisy’s working relationship. How does Daisy embolden Jen to rebel against her job? What is Jen’s greatest act of rebellion at LIFt? Do you think that Daisy emerges as the secret heroine of the book?
8. How is the identity of “artist” explored in Break in Case of Emergency? Why does Jen hesitate to describe herself as one, even as her friends and her husband define her that way? What is the true mark of being an artist, in Jen’s mind? Does she identify as one by the conclusion of the novel?
9. Jen’s miscarriage is an important aspect of the novel, yet it is never specifically called out as such in the text. Why do you think Winter chose to do this, from a stylistic perspective? How does this relate to the culture of silence around miscarriages? How does Jen derive comfort or solace in this situation? How does it affect her attitudes toward sex?
10. Describe Jen’s relationship with her mother. How does Jen’s mother’s chilly approach to parenting affect Jen’s self-worth? How does Jen view family as a result of her upbringing?
11. The scene wherein Jen asks Pam to participate in LIFt’s campaign is damaging to their relationship and acts as a turning point for Jen’s own mental health during the novel. Discuss the lead-up to this decision. Knowing the environment at LIFt, as well as Pam’s principles, why would Jen invite Pam into this situation? What was your reaction to the interview itself?
12. Discuss Karina and Jen’s trip to Belize. What was the purpose of Jen’s meeting with Baz? How did you interpret her conversation with Jim afterward? How did this trip affect Jen’s understanding of herself? Her ambitions?
13. On page 21, Pam asks Meg, “If a snake ate its own tail, do you think Jen would apologize to the snake?” How does the import of this statement echo throughout the novel? How does Jen’s lack of assertiveness affect her relationships? When does Jen seem most confident?
14. Describe Jen’s interaction with Flossie Durbin. How does Durbin’s evaluation of Jen’s art relate to the class consciousness that Winter describes throughout the novel? What compels Jen to ask for a commission for the painting?
15. How does the news of Pam’s marriage and pregnancy affect Jen? How does it destabilize her understanding of her friend? Their relationship?
16. Jen and her friends are at a very transitional point in their lives: marriage, children, home ownership, and career moves are all described and dissected in great detail. What did you find most relatable about Winter’s portrayal of this stage of life?