Friday, March 13, 2020

Fiction Review: Who Is Vera Kelly?

I have started reading for Booktopia 2020, and my first book for the event was actually a prequel, Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht. She will be attending Booktopia for her second book, Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery (that's next on my reading list!). This novel is an unusual spy story, about a young woman in 1966 in Argentina.

Part of what makes this an unusual spy novel is that it begins when the spy is an ordinary teenager in 1957, living in Chevy Chase, MD, with her mother, who is both often absent and abusive when she is present. Vera attempts suicide and so is sent to therapy with the counselor at her private school. Things go downhill quickly after that. After a short chapter in 1957, the next chapter jumps to 1966 in Buenos Aires, where Vera is a young woman working for the CIA. She is undercover as a college student, looking into reports that the KGB has been recruiting Marxist students to join them. Vera has come to Argentina equipped with a suitcase containing very expensive, state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. While she works to infiltrate the left-leaning student groups, she has also hired someone to plant listening devices in the offices of high-level politicians, as there is fear of a coup brewing in the country. Vera splits her time between pretending to be a shy but carefree college student with Marxist values and hiding out in a rented space across the street from the government buildings, painstakingly transcribing  phone calls and conversations as she listens in. Alternate chapters go back to her childhood, following her path from 1957, until the two stories gradually come together and readers discover how she came to be a CIA operative in the first place.

This unique book combines an intriguing coming-of-age story with a spy novel, resulting in an engrossing tale of a young woman's journey from childhood to spy. The timing and setting of the novel and its female spy lead make it even more original. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Vera and learning about 1960's spycraft through her eyes. I wouldn't call it a thriller exactly--there is less action and a slightly slower pace than traditional spy thrillers--but it is an engaging story with suspense that gradually builds, both in wondering how Vera became a spy and especially after things begin to fall apart in Buenos Aires. Knecht has created a unique literary heroine and described her place in 1966 Argentina so that you feel like you are there with her. I was absorbed in the story and couldn't wait to find out Vera's secrets and what was going to happen to her. And now I have the sequel to look forward to!

266 pages, Tin House Books

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Listen to a sampleof the audio book here and/or download it from Audible.

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  1. This sounds fun and the cover reminds me of Where'd You Go Bernadette?, which I really enjoyed.

    1. I liked the cover, too! And I liked Bernadette - want to see the movie, though it looked like they changed too much!