I’ve had something of a World War II obsession since I was a little kid thumbing through the American Girl catalog. Molly McIntire was one of my favorites of the dolls, and eventually I did get to own her (and as a twentysomething got to meet the author Valerie Tripp!). So ever since about the age of seven I’ve loved any book taking place during the 1940s. Home front, London Blitz, Polish resistance, Jewish survivor narratives, Anne Frank… the whole shebang. So this pick seemed an obvious choice for me — a British-German film actress with some espionage training, Clara Vine, is asked to befriend Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun and glean whatever information she can as the tension of the coming conflict tightens its hold on Paris and Berlin, the two settings of the novel. Since Eva is kept hidden from the public eye, this is no easy matter. And Clara may have to watch her own back as her past creeps up on her. And the whole thing starts with a mysterious death aboard a Nazi pleasure cruise.
(As a head’s up, this book is actually the third in the series featuring the actress Clara Vine. From what I can tell, the series is undergoing a rebranding, and the first two books in the series are not readily available at this time in the States, but I didn’t feel I was missing any major plot points. You pick up any background information pretty quickly.)
Spy stories are always fun. Especially if you have an author like Thynne who’s done plenty of research and adds in marvelous little details about how Clara utilizes her espionage training – like hiding information in the tube of her lipstick, or how she manages to ditch the man she suspects is trailing her. All the while we learn more about Clara’s day job as a film actress, and how the film industry in 1930s Germany was and had been. (Plenty of name-dropping, but not in an annoying way. Thynne doesn’t force Emil Jannings into the narrative just for the sake of having a well-known 1930s German actor show up, for instance.)
But what I particularly enjoyed about this story was learning about how the Nazi elite functioned in the late 30s. Clara enjoys some clout being an actress, and has a rapport with the wives of some of the Nazi leadership like Madga Goebbels and Emmy Göring. It’s certainly a different reading experience to see Nazis being portrayed as more human than demonic — the centers of petty gossip and extramarital affairs, not terribly mindful of the troubles being caused outside of their social circles. Having recently read a book about the concentration camps (which will be reviewed at a later date), it was kind of historical fiction whiplash. Nevertheless, I still got wrapped up in the story, and loved the tension of Clara’s mission, tactics, and personal life all mingled together.
There is some more adult material alluded to in the story, but the details are glossed over. Really, you get so engaged with the various story-lines as they come together that you’ll have trouble putting the book down for long, and you’ll be primed for the next book in the series being published in May. If you enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this is likely a novel you’ll also enjoy. If you’re like me and you’re into books on Germany around World War II, this will offer a different take on the usual points of view. And if you’re into Agent Carter and don’t mind the lack of physical altercations, this might be a pleasant read for you, too.