Red Joan

by Jennie Rooney

Inspired by the true story of a female spy, this is “an infectious page-turner, as crafty and nuanced and impassioned as any classic thriller” (The National). Inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, unmasked as the KGB’s longest-serving British spy in 1999, at age eighty-seven, Red Joan centers on the deeply conflicted life of a young physicist during the Second World War. Talented and impressionable, Cambridge undergraduate Joan Stanley befriends the worldly Sonya, whose daring history is at odds with Joan’s provincial upbringing. Joan also feels a growing attraction toward Leo, Sonya’s mysterious and charismatic cousin. Sonya and Leo, known communist sympathizers with ties to Russia and Germany, interpret wartime loyalty in ways Joan can only begin to fathom. As nations throughout the continent fall to fascism, Joan is enlisted into an urgent project that will change the course of the war—and the world—forever. Risking both career and conscience, leaking information to the Soviets while struggling to maintain her own semblance of morality, Joan is caught at a crossroads in which all paths lead to the same the deployment of the atomic bomb. Life during wartime, however, is often ambiguous, and when—decades later—MI5 agents appear at her doorstep, Joan must reaffirm the cost of the choices she made and face the cold our deepest secrets have a way of dragging down those we love most. The basis of the film starring Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson, this is “a brilliant spy novel, with [a] deft, involving plot . . . Tense, beautifully pitched, and very moving” (Marie Claire).

My Take

After The Venetian Affair I turned to a book I’d had in the TBR pile for a while that sounded like a more realistic take on the spy novel. It was not at all what I expected. It was more about why and how someone becomes a spy rather than the actual work of being a spy. I enjoyed it despite finding the main character annoying (yet sympathetic). One of those people you just want to shake and say “snap out of it!”