Historical Fiction · Mystery/Thriller

American Spy

I am not sure how it ended this book ended up on my TBR, as (to be honest) thrillers aren’t really a genre I read a lot of. However it got there, I was even more inclined to pick it up after seeing that Obama had put it on his list of favorite 2019 reads. I hosted my in-person book club meeting in January and this was one of the three recommendations I made for the group to choose from for next month’s read and it won be a landslide, so here we are.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

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It’s the middle of the Cold War era and Marie Mitchell is a young, black, female working as an intelligence officer for the mostly white all-boys club that is the FBI. She’s frustrated with the limitations on her position and work and is therefore primed to take an assignment with a shady taskforce that is working to bring down Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary and Communist-leaning charismatic new leader of Burkina Faso. This story, spanning distances from New York to Martinique to Burkina Faso, explores Marie’s youth and her reasons for joining the FBI in the first place, her year getting close to Sankara and her ideological changes during that time, as well as the far-reaching consequences of that assignment 5 years into the future.

This was such an interesting read for me, as it explores a time period, topic and setting(s) of which I had little previous experience or knowledge. An historical fiction that feels weird to qualify as such, since the 1980s weren’t really that long ago and I know so many people who actually lived those years. However, I wasn’t alive then, so I guess that’s what it is for me. Anyways, as I mentioned in my little introductory paragraph, I am not usually drawn to thrillers (spy or otherwise), as a genre. But with Obama’s recommendation and my book club support, I picked this one up. And really, I think the fact that it’s marketed as a thriller is a bit of a misrepresentation. There are aspects of that – Marie works for the FBI to infiltrate a foreign government (definitely “spy” type stuff) – and yet the story itself doesn’t read with that type of flow or pacing. By that I mean, there was never a time when I was on the edge of my seat while reading (though there was a point at the end where things got a little creepy and my heart rate did spike a little).

The story is told by Marie in what is essentially a “in case something happens to me, here’s your past/where you come from” letter to her young sons. It was used well as a device here, because it allowed the story to be told by jumping around in time, as Marie reflects on her relationship with her sister, her childhood, what her motivations for joining the FBI and taking this assignment were, the details of the assignment itself (getting to know Sankara and, of course, what went wrong), as well as the present day situation that has caused her to feel as if she needs to write this letter in the first place. I liked the way all these timelines were woven and told together, because it kept things moving more than I think they would have been otherwise. But it also meant that the story was more of a personal reflection, a character study, an individual story, than anything else. Plus, it takes away any concern for Marie in the past, knowing that she survives to write in the present. But it was smoothly executed and I appreciated how much deeper into Marie’s life the method allowed up to get. This was particularly beneficial, and in my opinion is likely what helped the book get onto Obama’s “favorites” list, as far as what we get to see of Marie’s impressions and interpretations of how she was treated (as a black, female FBI agent), why she was offered this special assignment, her experiences growing up that made her choose this path, as well as insight into how this all likely played into her decisions and loyalties at the end. It’s a commentary on and exploration of the time period – racially and ideologically – in addition to and possibly even more than a spy thriller. And naturally, as all good historical fiction will do, it prompted me to look up more info about the real time period and characters that were included and, as I’ve said many times before, I love that educational aspect of reading.

There were a couple things about this novel that didn’t work for me though. To be honest, I felt like Marie’s internal thoughts and dialogues, the ones that provide the insight mentioned above, were a bit too obvious at times. I’m not sure what it was, perhaps just the way they were worded, but I can’t say that I was overly impressed with the presentation/writing of it. Relatedly, as far as the writing, I thought the characters other than Marie were all sort of flat, as far as personality/characterization. A lot of it was a result of telling, instead of showing, their descriptions. But even Sankara…we kept hearing about his charisma, but I never really felt it. Similarly, many of the side characters like Marie’s “handlers” Ross and Slater, her ex-boyfriend/best friend Robbie, most of Sankara’s staff people; I actually kind of kept forgetting who was who and had to look back for reference for their names, as they were just so nondescript. And I want to mention one more time, as a caution, that this was a fairly slowly paced novel, especially for one that purports to be a spy thriller. I don’t think that actually affected my personal enjoyment of it, but I want to make sure that it’s said clearly again, in case that might be a deal-breaker for anyone.

Overall, I liked this book. It was fairly entertaining, opened my eyes to some new historical times/places and was told from a unique point of view that I appreciated for many reasons of fresh-ness and diversity. Although the writing itself was a bit clumsy, and left something to be desired, I did enjoy my time with the story.


A few passages I highlighted as I was reading:

“It’s not romantic to be so loyal that you compromise your sense of yourself.”

“While her gift for secrecy put distance between us, it also taught me the value of intelligence: I learned that a secret is power, that power in application is force, that force is strength, and strength advantage.”

“It’s only a fool who doesn’t learn from the experience of others.”

“That is what a woman’s strength looks like when it’s palatable: like she is containing herself.”

“…the most revolutionary work I could do. Raising you to be better than me, in hope that you will make the world better. That you will remake it in your image – into a place that deserves you.”

6 thoughts on “American Spy

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