The Very Nice Box is a quirky, sensitive first novel by Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett, released in July 2021. Gleichman and Blackett’s debut novel deftly takes on social stigmas, office peculiarities, loss, grief, relationships, and happiness wrapped up in an engaging story filled with humor and unexpected twists that keeps readers on the edge of their seats anxious to find out what happens next. The story centers on Ava Simon, an able engineer who leads a design team for STÄDA, a company in Brooklyn somewhat reminiscent of IKEA providing a wide range of heavily branded products meant for functionality above all else. These products are fashionable and cover almost every area of furnishing and function a person could need for their home, office, and personal care. Ava designs an essential furnishing that everyone needs – boxes. Her passion project is to design and build The Very Nice Box, something destined to become one of STÄDA’s signature products.
Ava is socially awkward and hyper-focused on her work and on her dog Brutus. She’s the only survivor from a horrific traffic accident that took the lives of her fiancé and her parents just a few years before the story takes place, and she’s haunted by emerging memories from the crash. Since her accident, she’s walled herself off from others, all except for her friend and confidant Jaime Rojas. Jaime is an eager junior engineer with a functional style who is prone to spouting various conspiracy theories. Ava is guarded even with him, but she shares more with him than she has with anyone since losing Andie, her fiancé and soulmate. Andie was also an engineer at STÄDA. Her specialty was clocks and watches. Since the accident, Ava breaks up her life into 30-minute units, and she calibrates all of her efforts whether personal or professional on the basis of those increments. In some ways, Ava represents the stereotypical engineer – antisocial, bright, a problem solver, and possibly just a little bit compulsive. OK, not just a little bit.
Judith Ball is the head of HR, or in STÄDA parlance, the People Office. She is also one of the company’s founding members and a member of the board. She appears to have a chip on her shoulder and at least to Ava and Jaime seems determined to track every employee in the most intrusive ways possible. Ava sometimes worries that others might see something of Judith in her based on a certain rigidity, but mostly she doesn’t care what others think of her. She just wants to be left alone to do her work with as little interaction as possible.
Karl was Ava’s boss and the one who originally started STÄDA naming the company after his hometown in the old country. He and Ava had a mutual respect for one another’s talents, and she considered Karl something of a mentor.
Alas, Ava’s world is turned upside down. Karl left, and she got a new boss – Mathew Putnam, or Mat as he preferred to be called. Mat is socially everything that Ava is not – outgoing, energetic, engaging, and full of platitudes that he appears to believe. Mat takes over the product and marketing teams from Karl, and he is determined to make sweeping changes to the company to bring it into the 21st Century whether it wants to go there or not. He claims to have an MBA from Wharton and that he graduated at the top of his class. He also has the looks of a modern Adonis and knows it. He’s overly friendly to everyone, and Ava’s first impression is to get as far away from him as possible. That is not to be. For some inexplicable reason, Mat takes an instant liking to her, and over time they develop a friendship that becomes something much more. All the while, Mat charms the majority of STÄDA’s workforce, with a few notable exceptions. Jaime doesn’t trust him, and neither does Judith which in itself is odd. Jaime and Judith normally don’t agree on much of anything, but on this they do.
Jaime is concerned for Ava’s safety and warns her that something is weird about Mat, but she doesn’t believe him thinking it is just more of his conspiracy theories and possibly a bit of jealousy even though Jaime and Ava have never been romantically involved. As Ava and Mat become closer, she pushes Jaime away, much to his disappointment and dismay. And then things change.
The story lampoons corporate America, industry jargon, excessive branding, eco-activism, office irregularities and stereotypes, male privilege, and much more while at the same time weaving a compelling plot and developing characters with whom the reader can relate where all is not necessarily as it seems. There is much beneath the surface that comes into focus along the way through gentle humor and some surprising twists as various plotlines coalesce and resolve in a satisfying flurry of excitement.
The book reads quickly, and beyond its abundant satire it takes a much deeper dive into some real world issues that everyone will experience if they live long enough. Loss and grief are a part of life. While the sources of those feelings may not necessarily be a tragic accident, dealing with them can be extremely personal and painful. This debut novel makes clear is that everyone needs help from time to time, and even the most independent individual needs a friend to lean on and also to laugh with. The authors also impart the sage wisdom that while sometimes a box is just a box, often times it’s far more than that, and everyone can use a very nice box in ways they never imagined.
The Very Nice Box, by Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett