Debut novel 'Buying In' explores the pitfalls of life on Wall Street


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Wall Street banker Laura Hemphill took her seven years laboring in the world of finance and spun them into a work of fiction that pulls back the door on life of the privileged elite. When it's all said and done, you might find yourself quite pleased that you don't consider yourself a 1 percenter.

The debut novel opens with Sophie Landgraf snooping through her bosses' desk in the middle of the night. "It's 2 a.m. No one's here. Who's to know?"

It's her first job out of college working as a junior analyst at the fictional powerhouse Sterling Bank (in the same company as the "real" Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns) and Sophie can't help but try to unearth a sliver of humanity in her new place of employment where 100-hour workweeks are the norm.


"BUYING IN"
By Laura Hemphill.
Amazon Publishing/ New Harvest ($24).

Her life since she arrived in the Big Apple is a juggling act -- twisting between the world of high finance and the sheep farm she grew up on in Massachusetts. She was born to unconventional bohemian parents who really didn't know what to do with their only child who hung posters of Einstein instead of the Backstreet Boys on her wall. Her mother died when she was away at her "fancy school" and Dad is practically living off the grid, unable to cope with his reality.

There's little to like about the folks who rattle around the 27th floor of the sparkling skyscraper until you realize that they are all a product of the "what have you done for me lately" mentality that pervades every minute of their day.

Desk mate Jordanne obsessively brushes her teeth, vice president Vasu Mehta sneaks out for cigarettes and tries to juggle a home life that goes on without him home, while their boss Ethan Pearce hides his injured soul behind an exterior of expensive suits and daily workouts.

Each has secrets, some darker than others, and all are afraid to expose anything besides a work persona lest it be perceived as weakness. Sophie spends endless days immersed in spreadsheets; when she is assigned to run figures on an aluminum company, it soon consumes her life as merger talks swirl and then open up to the holy grail -- a billion-dollar deal.

Locals will love the Pittsburgh references (this was the birthplace to Alcoa after all), including a shout-out to President Obama's favorite pancake joint -- Pamela's.

As the deal grows, what's left of Sophie's life gets shredded to bits. She's all in, BlackBerry at her breast ready to jump day or night as the negotiations get tight, and her wholesome upbringing grabs the attention of the CEO Jake Hutchinson who looks at her like one of his own daughters.

This startles her superiors who don't know what to make of the disheveled waif of a girl who always seems to say the right thing. Sophie's transformation and doubting self-analysis wanes as the tale grows, except when the all-too-real scenario of cutbacks and layoffs rears its ugly head.

It's an insightful front seat to the process that could be triggered by anything: partners getting ready for a bonus and cutting the fat to beef up their own wallets, or some big mouth short-seller who buys a stock that brings down the entire house of cards. Either way, it's chilling.

Anyone who has been part of a large financial transaction, like buying a house, can appreciate the tension that goes along with such negotiations. Ms. Hemphill's insider look at the process on steroids is fascinating. CEOs hold clandestine hotel room meetings in neutral cities where their sighting won't raise eyebrows. Furniture pushed to the walls makes room for armies of bankers and one-upsmanship at the highest level, and the winner comes away with the spoils and the challenge of leading the new company into the future. The loser gets a balloon payment that is unfathomable to most.

Sophie Landgraf learns the hard way how to play the game. As with most houses built on sand, it all comes tumbling down. She suffers losses but the shrewdness she has gained along the way serve her well, and she waits for the perfect time to pounce -- and comes out a winner.

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Rosa Colucci: rcolucci@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1661.

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