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The Very Nice Box
by Laura Blackett Eve Gleichman

Published: 2021-07-06T00:0
Hardcover : 368 pages
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"A quirky, deeply satisfying, whip-smart debut that critiques corporate culture and male entitlement while also offering a heartfelt look at how to work through grief. Meticulously constructed and truly original—I inhaled it." —Jami Attenberg, author of All This Could Be Yours

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Introduction

"A quirky, deeply satisfying, whip-smart debut that critiques corporate culture and male entitlement while also offering a heartfelt look at how to work through grief. Meticulously constructed and truly original—I inhaled it." —Jami Attenberg, author of All This Could Be Yours

For fans of Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Severance: an offbeat, wryly funny debut novel that follows an eccentric product engineer who works for a hip furniture company where sweeping corporate change lands her under the purview of a startlingly charismatic boss who seems determined to get close to her at all costs . . .

Ava Simon designs storage boxes for STÄDA, a slick Brooklyn-based furniture company. She’s hard-working, obsessive, and heartbroken from a tragedy that killed her girlfriend and upended her life. It’s been years since she’s let anyone in.

But when Ava’s new boss—the young and magnetic Mat Putnam—offers Ava a ride home one afternoon, an unlikely relationship blossoms. Ava remembers how rewarding it can be to open up—and, despite her instincts, she becomes enamored. But Mat isn’t who he claims to be, and the romance takes a sharp turn.

The Very Nice Box is a funny, suspenseful debut—with a shocking twist. It’s at once a send-up of male entitlement and a big-hearted account of grief, friendship, and trust.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

1

Even if she didn’t work at STÄDA, Ava Simon would have furnished her home with STÄDA products. They were functional, well-designed household items, free of unnecessary decorations and features. She owned two Simple Dinner Plates, two Pleasing Water Glasses, and two Comforting Mugs, which together fit perfectly on her Dependable Drying Rack, along with her Useful Forks, Spoons, and Knives.

Ava’s full-sized Principled Bed was made of pine and supported a Comfortable Mattress, which had a firmness factor of 8—exactly calibrated to her preference. On the far side of the bedroom was a Dreamy Dog Bed for her boxer, Brutus. She owned a Practical Sofa, an Embracing Armchair, and an Appealing Dining Table. In her closet hung seven long-sleeved shirts (three gray, two black, and two white), seven short-sleeve shirts, two pairs of pants (one denim, one cotton), two pairs of sneakers (identical, black), seven pairs of black socks, and seven pairs of black underwear. She had one lightweight jacket, one winter coat, and one rain jacket.

She liked to think of each day as a series of efficiently divided thirty-minute units. One unit for showering, dressing, and brushing her teeth. One unit for breakfast and coffee. One unit for walking Brutus along the perimeter of McCarren Park. One unit driving to the STÄDA offices in Red Hook.

Ava was an Engineer for STÄDA’s Storage team. She took care and satisfaction in her work, which she carried out across 16 units in STÄDA’s Simple Tower. The Simple Tower was a neck-achingly tall architectural feat, made entirely of glass and designed to concentrate and redirect all natural sunshine into the building, so that even overcast days supplied the Simple Tower with powerful, invigorating light. Its interior was expansive and elegant. Polished concrete floors and curved glass walls divided the workspaces from the meeting rooms. Common areas were outfitted with STÄDA’s living room collection; Plush Sofas and Cozy Nesting Tables were arranged as if they were in the showroom. The three STÄDA kitchens—the Sweet Kitchen, the Salty Kitchen, and the Wellness Kitchen—were stocked with snacks, coffee, and Wellness Water—spring water infused with a rotating variety of citrus fruits. Small atriums punctuated the space, extending all the way to the roof.

Teams on Floor 12 worked together in pods, their long black desks positioned under dropped birch ceilings. Floor 12 was quiet aside from the soft clacking of keyboards. An outside observer would not suspect the constant current of online chatter happening over S-Chat, the company’s in-house instant messenger. STÄDA employees organized chat rooms based on shared interests, and occasionally a handful of people sitting in different areas would abruptly erupt into laughter.

Ava, who only engaged with S-Chat when it was absolutely necessary, sat next to a window overlooking Red Hook’s piers. Barges came and went from STÄDA’s distribution center, a long, commercial wharf with weathered brick and gigantic steel storm shutters. It extended out into the East River, reaching toward the Manhattan skyline. The wake from the freight barges rolled up in perfect time, churning white against the limestone breakers. Ava considered this rhythm, the business of moving their products from conception out into the world, to be STÄDA’s heartbeat.

This week, Ava had begun mocking up the lid hardware for the Very Nice Box, a simple but smart design that she hoped would be introduced in the coming year. The Very Nice Box was her Passion Project. It was exactly the kind of work she had come to STÄDA to do: meticulous engineering without frills or gimmicks; just the ideal intersection of geometry and utility, where each component existed for a reason. If all went to plan, the Very Nice Box would be followed by a series of shelves and hanging rails that could be configured in endless arrangements. But its most basic unit, the foundation upon which the entire strategy for the year rested, comprised six large uniform sides, assembled with pegs and hinges. Ava was determined to make it perfect. It would take her 150 units to create renderings for the hinges alone, she estimated, as she floated upwards in STÄDA’s giant glass-backed freight elevator after an Outdoors Break.

The doors opened to Floor 12, where Jaime Rojas, a Junior Engineer, waited by the hand sanitizers with a stack of hinge sketches. “There you are!” he said, handing them to her. He wore a floral shirt buttoned to his throat. Ava admired Jaime’s maximalist spin on the STÄDA brand. His aesthetic was both complex and tidy: tucked in shirt, clean, short fingernails. A natural streak of white ran through one side of his otherwise dark, coiffed hair. Jaime was not new to STÄDA, but he was new to Ava’s team. His specialty was gadgets, watches, small lamps, and clocks, but he had never complained about being relegated to Storage. Originally from El Paso, Jaime had moved to the city to attend NYU. He’d once confided in Ava that he’d been glacially slow to pick a major, trying everything from psychology to art history before finally landing on comparative literature. He lived in Bed-Stuy with two roommates, and had started working at STÄDA as a Customer Bliss Associate after a string of service industry jobs, which he liked to joke was the natural next step for humanities majors. Ava considered Jaime a friend—her only friend—and she quietly appreciated his commitment to their standing Monday lunch.

Lunch at STÄDA was free and catered on a rotating basis by nearby restaurants. The restaurant changed every quarter based on a popular vote. But long lunch lines—or, more precisely, the company’s failure to implement an effective design solution to solve the line problem—deterred Ava. So she prepared her own lunches, which were simple and vegetarian—equal parts protein, fat, and carbohydrates—and divided into three compartments in her Sensible Bento Box, which was one of her most enduring designs. She didn’t vote for a restaurant, and no one tried to lobby her.

Jaime walked alongside Ava as she made her way to her desk. “Maybe we can discuss those hinges after the Conference Room thing?”

“The Conference Room thing,” Ava repeated. “I almost forgot about that. What are they making us do this time?”

“No clue,” Jaime said. “Maybe they’re announcing the arrival of the gay tree.”

Ava shuddered. STÄDA’s new Spirit team—part of the recent corporate expansion—had recently erected a tall paper tree with rainbow-colored leaves made from tissue paper. The design was terrible. The word PRIDE had been traced in black marker on the trunk. Ava knew that as queer employees, she and Jaime were supposed to appreciate the gesture. She had even received an email from HR asking for her feedback on the tree. But the tree hurt her eyes and its leaves shushed noisily whenever anyone walked by it, so the only thing it did was provide an aesthetically offensive distraction from her work.

Ava sighed. “How do they expect us to do our jobs with mandatory orientations happening all the time?”

“Don’t ask me,” Jaime said. “I’m just the messenger.”

A reminder email about the Conference Room event waited, unopened, in Ava’s inbox. The subject line was a smiley face. The Spirit team hadn’t even booked an end-time. Whatever this was, Ava dreaded it. The meeting, or training, or experimental team-building activity would come barreling through her well-organized Friday, she would be pressured to eat something sugary at a strange time of day, and she would have to interact with her colleagues, most of whom she didn’t know.

That was also by design. She had worked hard to strike a balance between pleasant and unapproachable. She didn’t want to repel anyone the way Judith Ball from Human Resources did. Judith Ball’s title had recently been rebranded to Chief People Officer. She took her job extremely seriously, and had the warmth of disinfectant spray. She was older than most at STÄDA, and was one of the company’s founding members, which meant that along with overseeing hiring and workplace policies, she had a seat on STÄDA’s board, where she was the only woman, and only person of color.

Judith would often remark that she never understood why the workplace had become so casual. With more and more employees showing up in designer flip-flops and hoodies, she loved to remind them that she could remember a time when people dressed up to travel. “One must dress for success,” she would say matter-of-factly. She herself wore a self-assigned work uniform: a skirt suit with a tucked-in, cream-colored top, her hair relaxed and pulled into a neat bun, a string of pearls. She sent frequent memos about Boundless Vacation Days, Suggested Attire, and the proper protocol for leaving for an Unlimited Outdoors Break. (Feel free to take Unlimited Outdoors Breaks, she wrote in a recent email, but do remember to notify your manager on S-chat and include me on the exchange). Judith had no apparent interests of her own outside of flattening everyone’s fun.

Am I like that? Ava would sometimes wonder.

But no. Unlike Judith, Ava had no interest in keeping tabs on her colleagues’ Boundless Vacation Days or Unlimited Outdoors Breaks. So instead of being hated, Ava was simply ignored, which was for the best. She didn’t invite interactions. She didn’t ask anyone about their weekends, and she didn’t particularly like it when anyone asked about hers. Her answer never changed, because her weekends, like her weekdays, were beautifully organized, uniform, and solitary. When she described them, whoever was listening would glaze over. Eventually, her colleagues left her to do what she did best, which was to create useful household boxes from the six essential STÄDA materials: wood, metal, MDF, plastic, linen, and pulp board.

But a new employee had arrived at the Simple Tower, and appeared to be disrupting this social contract. According to what Ava had overheard the day before in the Wellness Kitchen, he was fresh out of grad school—having earned some sort of double degree that Ava couldn’t bring herself to care about—and would be settling into STÄDA’s Marketing department that week.

His name was Mathew Putnam, and he had gripped the attention of Floor 12, not just because of his fancy degree, but because he was categorically handsome. According to his STÄDA Employee Photo, which had been circulating around the S-Chat backchannels, he looked young—younger than Ava, who was 31. Today she had noticed feverish typing when he showed up for a tour of Floor 12. S-Chat notifications dinged with higher frequency. Workers across all teams arranged their hair differently. Several men spoke more loudly. Even Jaime had messaged her on S-Chat. Um . . .it appears a literal Adonis will be working here.

Ava saw that Mathew Putnam was making his way in her general direction, and she braced herself. A young Spirit staffer was delighting in bringing him around to every desk, as if they were the bride and groom at a wedding reception. She watched as Mat greeted her colleagues as though he’d known them since childhood and was now enjoying a much-awaited reunion. His charisma was palpable. Around him, her colleagues smiled and laughed more. Eventually, the pair made their way to Ava’s desk. She busied herself with Jaime’s hinge sketches for the Very Nice Box, slipped on her Peaceful Headphones, and tuned into her favorite podcast, Thirty-Minute Machine, hoping that her focus would drive them away.

“Mat Putnam,” he said, sticking out his hand. “It’s awesome to finally meet you.” His voice cut through Ava’s Peaceful Headphones. She pulled them off and quickly shook his hand, which was large and warm. He clearly had not yet learned the unofficial STÄDA greeting, which was simply a hand raised, shoulder-level, as though an oath were being taken. This was to prevent unwanted touch and the spread of flus and colds.

“The badass box boss, Lexi tells me.” Mat smiled at Ava eagerly, then turned to the Spirit staffer, who blushed violently at the mention of her own name.

Ava looked up at him. He had a puppyish energy that alarmed her. He was extraordinarily tall, with a well-structured jaw, a clean-shaven face, and a prominent Adam’s apple. He wore heeled leather boots, dark-wash jeans, and a thick white t-shirt whose sleeves hugged his biceps. He was the type of man who would accidentally drop a baby and immediately be forgiven. “Excited for the big bash?” he said, drumming his fingers on her desk.

“No,” Ava said. “It’s a party?” She’d been trying to ignore the steady line of people making their way into the Conference Room.

“Come on!” Mat said. “I looked in the Imagination Room and I can report that there are streamers. And a gluten-free cake! It’ll be great.”

“The Imagination Room?”

“Oh, sorry,” Mat said. “You probably knew it as the Conference Room.”

Ava adjusted a framed photo of Brutus on her desk. She had only one photo of her dog so as not to appear singularly obsessed with him, or lonely. “I disagree that it will be great,” she said.

“Well, I’m going to be there, and you’re going to be there, and cake will be there,” Mat said. “And Lexi will be there!” He beamed at Lexi, who beamed back at him. “So it’s guaranteed to be great.” His smile had fallen, and Ava felt responsible. But she had wanted, at least, the details of this office “bash” ahead of time so she could know how much time it would take up, and whether she would be home to Brutus later than usual. She had sent an email to this effect to the Spirit Team, whose rep simply responded, Where’s the fire, you little work horse! She’d hated this email because it hadn’t answered her question, because the rep had mixed metaphors, because the punctuation was wrong, and because “workhorse” was one word.

Mat patted down the hair on the back of his head. “There’s something I should probably tell you,” he said. “Lexi, go ahead.”

Ava glanced around the room, in case he was talking to someone else. There were, after all, at least two dozen other Senior Engineers across the floor. Lexi headed towards the Conference Room, running a hand through her long hair. What could Mat Putnam possibly have to tell Ava? He had just learned her name. She felt his attention on her, and wondered if he expected her to speak. To her relief, he broke the silence. “It’s about a shift in STÄDA’s marketing plan for Q4—”

“—Marketing? I’m an Engineer,” Ava said. “So whatever it is probably doesn’t concern me.” She didn’t want to hear about his marketing plan for Q4. She was sure he would discuss it with unnecessary flare. Marketing reps always took too long to make their point, and she couldn’t lose any more time to this conversation. She had one more hinge sketch to consider. It would take four units—exactly the amount of time left in her workday. Now she would have to bump that work to Monday and re-calibrate the entire week. She sighed and looked at her Precise Wristwatch. “Let’s get whatever this is over with.”

Mat’s smile faltered. “Awesome,” he said.

Ava stood.

Inbox zero. Tightening a bolt. Folding a shirt. Sweeping a floor. Tracing a circle. These were the things that soothed her. She thought about each of them as Mat Putnam swung open the door to what was now, she would have to accept, the Imagination Room. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Consider how the authors employ satire. What does the opening of the story reveal about STÄDA and its culture? Did it feel familiar to you? How would you say that STÄDA compares to real-life businesses? What does Ava do at the company and why does she like working there? Alternatively, what does she try to avoid while she is there? As Ava stands in the Imagination Room for the announcement of Karl’s departure, she wonders “Am I in a cult?” (13). How would you answer her question? ?

2. What are Mat’s first interactions with Ava like and what are her first impressions of him? Why does Ava accept a ride home from Mat even though it was “the last thing [she] wanted” (24)? Were you surprised when she agreed to meet Mat at the dog park the following day? ?

3. How does STÄDA “demand” the so-called “self-care” of its employees? What is problematic about this? What does this say about the true nature of self-care and wellness and how they can best be cultivated? What alter- native offering or solutions from STÄDA—and real-life businesses—might be better contributions to their employees’ actual health and wellness? ?

4. When Mat tells Ava about an email from Judith in which she chided him for being five minutes late to his job interview, Ava thinks “men got to be this way . . . constantly in the midst of forgiving themselves” (48). What do you think she meant by this? Do you agree with her? Where else does the book offer thoughts on male entitlement? ?

5. Explore the theme of grief. Years after the deaths of her parents and her fiancée, Andie, how are these losses still impacting Ava? What support does she have? What are some of her coping mechanisms? Do they seem to be effective? How does Ava’s grief influence her decision-making? What is—or could have been—most helpful for Ava as she attempts to reimagine her life after such enormous loss? ?

6. Evaluate the symbolism of the Very Nice Box. Why did Ava feel so passionate about this particular project? What do you think that the box represents for her? Why do you think the book was named after this object? How does it reflect or refer readers back to the major themes and motifs of the book? ?

7. What is Ava’s relationship with Jaime like? How does their relationship change once Ava begins dating Mat? What insights does Jaime offer into their relationship from an outside perspective and how does Ava respond to this? Would you say Ava is a good friend to Jaime? ?

8. Who are the Red Hook Vandals and why are they trying to stop the development of the Vision Tower? How does the book provide a counterpoint to the characterization of the Vandals? Why does a member of this group tell a reporter that it is ironic that STÄDA sees itself as the victim? Who are the Vandals revealed to be at the book’s conclusion and how does this tie in with contemporary conversations about activists and their portrayal in the media?
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9. How do the authors create suspense within the story and how does this contribute to a conversation about the themes of trust and intuition? Were you surprised by Mat’s identity? Why or why not? What were some of the red flags that Ava ignored? What made her particularly vulnerable to Mat’s predatory behavior? What does the book ultimately suggest about who one should make oneself vulnerable to and how can people make good choices in this area?
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10. What is it that Mat and Ava ultimately have in common? At the end of the novel, how has she been changed by her experience and what steps does she say that she wants to take in order to begin a true process of healing?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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  "Ridiculous"by Tbaker123 (see profile) 08/04/21

Absolutely ridiculous.

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