'Chambermaid: A Novel' by Saira Rao

Ex-clerk disrobes a federal judge in hilarious debut book

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There aren't many novels that make their readers laugh out loud, let alone burst into hysterics in the doctor's waiting room. But that's what happened to me with "Chambermaid."

Saira Rao's first novel is based -- at least in part -- on her year spent clerking with Judge Dolores Sloviter of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

   
"THE CHAMBERMAID: A NOVEL"

By Saira Rao
Grove Press ($22)

   

The novel follows the year-long clerkship of Sheila Raj, a neurotic, high-strung woman who is working for fictional Judge Helga Friedman, a highly-respected, incredibly liberal, self-obsessed loon.

From the very beginning, it is clear that Friedman is crazy. When she doesn't get her way, she immediately shouts, "I AM A FEDERAL JUDGE."

In her world, only she is important, and she treats everyone as if they are beneath her, constantly abusing clerks and staff. They are not to use the telephone, the Internet, take vacation or think that a slight family emergency, like a death, is worth leaving work for.

Based on the advice of her publisher's lawyers, Rao won't say how much of the book is based on her time at the Third Circuit, but what she does say is this:

"I didn't put anything in there that was completely exaggerated or out of the realm of possibility. It's kernels of truth wrapped in make-believe."

Occasionally, some of the antics in "Chambermaid" are so far over the top, they aren't even close to believable. But Rao said it's those events -- for instance, Sheila wetting herself while watching a particularly tense exchange between Friedman and another clerk -- that are "entirely possible."

And even if the stories are too hard to believe, they are so often written with such an easy, casual air, that they prompt nothing but laughs.

Near the end of the book, Sheila is called into the "torture chamber," and as the judge begins talking to her, "a fleck of something decidedly heinous came flying out of her mouth, its whereabouts unknown."

Later, as she runs into another clerk, he says to Sheila: " 'What is that?!' "

"I reached for my forehead. Fleck found. I wiped it off, and sure enough, it was decidedly heinous. Chicken salad."

Even for readers not interested in the law, "Chambermaid" is sure to strike a familiar chord for anyone who's ever had a jerk for a boss or even just knew someone with disgusting eating habits.

The most extraordinary aspect of Rao's storytelling, is that by the end of the book, readers might find themselves actually liking Judge Friedman -- if even just a little.

After portraying her and her bouncing bun as a completely miserable character throughout, Rao manages to make Friedman just a bit more human by book's end.

The author, however, no longer has a legal career. After leaving her clerkship in 2003, she joined a New York law firm but quit to work on her writing.


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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