Sunday Review: A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe

This novel seemed like an appropriate choice to follow up Stephanie Marie Thornton’s A Most Clever Girl because both deal with women in the intelligence game in mid-twentieth century United States. The premise intrigued me enough to overlook my qualms about the cover image: “It’s stunning,” I thought, “but that outfit is more 1962 than 1952.” In this case, I absolutely should have judged the book by its cover. The story never felt authentic to me.

Katharina, the daughter of immigrants, grew up speaking four languages and has since become conversational in at least one more—Russian. The novel opens in the early 1950s with Katharina and a friend watching their very young children in Central Park. The friend seems to have taken to motherhood effortlessly; she’s calm, empathetic, and decisive in dealing with her daughter and any crises that arise. In contrast, Katharina is easily overwhelmed by her rambunctious toddler and crying baby.

Once her “present-day situation” is established, we go back in time to her life just after World War II. Because of her skill set, Katharina gets a job as a simultaneous translator at the UN (similar to Audrey Hepburn in the movie Charade, which is one of my all-time favorites, so I was intrigued). However, from the start, I found it hard to relate to Katharina. Even though she mentions in passing that translating the important discussions at the UN helps her feel that she is contributing meaningfully to world peace, that doesn’t truly seem to be what she loves most about her life. Rather, she rhapsodizes about being single and going out with her French friend, eating great food, drinking all night, and flirting with men, often going to bed with them. She comes across as a shallow hedonist.

Unlike many young women of the time period, she is not pursuing marriage. However, when she meets handsome Tom Edgeworth, a devoted and much-loved pediatric surgeon, she falls for him and he for her. They marry, not exactly in haste, but without much effort to discover if they are truly compatible as life partners, not just dinner partners and bedmates. Tom has made it perfectly clear that he expects the woman he marries to provide him with children as quickly as possible and to devote herself to them full-time. It seems to me that if Katharina is half as intelligent as we’re supposed to believe, she would have seen the red flags right away. Her French friend certainly tried to get her to view the prospect realistically. Yet Katharina marries Tom with a disturbing lack of concern.

Faster forward to motherhood, and Katharina is miserable, “trapped in a gilded cage” as the book jacket says. When she develops insomnia and starts drinking heavily and behaving erratically, Tom has little sympathy for his wife. Instead, he grows even more rigid even though he suspects she is having a breakdown.

Suddenly, in the midst of this increasing discord, the FBI recruits her. They plan to arrange things so she’ll encounter her former college lover, Jacob Gornev, in hopes that she will eventually be able to spy on him—because he is highly placed among American communists. (Is it just a coincidence that his name is so similar to Jacob Golos, the real-life communist spy who played such a prominence role in A Most Cleve Girl? I doubt it.)

Katharina’s main contact at the FBI is Turner Wells, a black agent who is spying on a civil rights group because, although he believes in civil rights, he’s afraid of too much communist influence on the movement. (A situation I found to be really distasteful and rather peculiar for a white author to place her one prominent and supposedly sympathetic character of color in.) To add one more bit of spice to this improbable stew of ingredients, Tanabe decided to have Katharina feel an almost instantaneous but forbidden sexual attraction to Turner.

The feminist exploration of motherhood might have worked on its own or with a different partner story, and the tangled loyalties of FBI agents could have been quite interesting. But the two storylines felt forced together in a marriage that was as incompatible as Katharina and Tom’s.

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Filed under American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Twentieth century

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