Title: A Most Clever Girl
Author: Stephanie Marie Thornton
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: September 14th, 2021 (Berkley Books)
Synopsis: 1963: Reeling from the death of her mother and President Kennedy’s assassination, Catherine Gray shows up on Elizabeth Bentley’s doorstep demanding answers to the shocking mystery just uncovered about her family. What she doesn’t expect is for Bentley to ensnare her in her own story of becoming a controversial World War II spy and Cold War informer…
Recruited by the American Communist Party to spy on fascists at the outbreak of World War II, a young Bentley – code name Clever Girl – finds she has an unexpected gift for espionage. But after falling desperately in love with her handler, Jacob Golos, Elizabeth makes another unexpected discovery when she learns her lover is actually a Russian spy. Together, they will build the largest Soviet spy network in America and Elizabeth will become its uncrowned Red Spy Queen. However, once the war ends and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. become embroiled in the Cold War, it is Elizabeth who will dangerously clash with the NKVD, the brutal Soviet espionage agency.
As Catherine listens to Elizabeth’s harrowing tale, she empathizes with her, that is, until she uncovers startling revelations that link the two women’s lives in shocking ways. Faced with the idea that her entire existence is based on a lie, Catherine realizes there can be many sides to the truth. And only Elizabeth Bentley can tell her what that truth really is.
In the wake of her mother’s death, Catherine Gray finds out a secret about her past that leaves her reeling. Determined to get vengeance, she seeks out Elizabeth Bentley, intending to kill her. But instead, Elizabeth convinces her to listen to her story first and what unfolds is a story of espionage. In 1933, a young and lonely Elizabeth is recruited by the American Communist Party, ostensibly to fight against fascism, but by the time World War II comes around, things have changed and she finds herself deeply involved in a spy network for the Russians. When the war ends however, the U.S. and Russia are at odds once more and Elizabeth’s life is at risk – and the only way out might be to go against the dangerous Soviet spy agency.
This book is definitely not set in one of the eras I usually read for historical fiction and cold war history is something I barely know anything about. But, as I’ve found in the past, if I’m going to try a new setting for historical fiction, Stephanie Thornton’s books are usually a safe bet – and this was no exception. This was a fascinating glimpse into the world of espionage during the Cold War. Where slower paced novels usually annoy me to no end, with this book, I didn’t notice where the time went at all. It was such an engrossing and suspenseful read and I just kept turning the pages, needing to know what happens next, what Catherine found out about herself and Elizabeth that made her seek her out to kill her.
Elizabeth Bentley was certainly no hero, and her actions throughout her narrative seem solely to save herself when she realizes how dangerous a spot she has landed herself in. Her reasons for going down the path that she did, getting involved with the Communist party, just felt so weak and it made her a very hard character to relate to, if not impossible. On top of it all, she was a rather unreliable narrator – a trope which I’ve learned to enjoy over the years, but in this, it just felt irritating. The only redeeming piece of Bentley’s story, at least in this fictionalized version was her connection with Catherine and what she tried to do for her, and the fact that this story is written as if Elizabeth is narrating her life’s story to Catherine is what kept it interesting.
This was an amazing and well researched read and it made me curious to know more about this time period in history and also about Elizabeth Bentley. I’m really glad I picked it up despite it not being from one of my go to eras for this genre and I’m looking forward to seeing what Stephanie Thornton writes next. I would highly recommend this book and really, any by this author, for all historical fiction fans!
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!