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October 8, 2021

A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton ~ a Review

by Donna Huber

I love Cold War-era espionage novels almost as much as I love WWII novels. However, from a historical perspective, I have very little knowledge of the period as none of my history classes went past WWII. Of course, I knew of McCarthyism and the Red Scare but it was picked up based on my own interest and mostly from fiction. I kind of thought that was what this book would be about when I saw 1963 in the description. What I got was much more and oh, so good.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

A Most Clever Girl
September 2021; Berkley; 978-0593198407
audio, ebook, print (416 pages); historical fiction

Before I read this novel I had never heard of Elizabeth Bentley. But she was a real person and she admitted to being an American who spied for the Russians. A Most Clever Girl is a fictional account of her life.

While the book starts in 1963 in the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination, Bentley's story begins much earlier - in the waning years of the Great Depression, prior to the U.S. entering WWII. While some nation's moved towards Fascism (like Germany and Italy) to deal with the worldwide economic disaster the other end of the spectrum (Communism) was taking hold in other countries (like Russia and eastern Europe). Both promised prosperity. Because Americans were already being warned about communism, most organizations did not openly call themselves communists. 

When Elizabeth attends a rally with a neighbor she is taken with the message - better wages, improved conditions for workers, etc. Particularly, when her job opportunities are limited and she is barely making enough to keep herself out of the soup kitchens. But when she is at the organization's headquarters later she is shocked to learn they are communist. Her introduction to the Communist Party is easy to understand. And when you add to it that they are against fascism, it is even understandable when she sees it as her patriotic duty to aid the Party as the U.S. enters a war that is against fascism.

I have to say Elizabeth's story is fascinating and at times completely heartbreaking. My intrigue for Elizabeth Bentley woman rivals that which I felt for Nancy Wake after reading Code Name Hélène. I didn't want to put this book down and I was glad that I was able to get the audiobook from my digital library so that I could continue with the story even when I didn't have the time to sit down with the book. (By the way, it is one of the very best audiobooks I've ever listened to - kudos to narrator Tavia Gilbert).

So why does the story start in 1963? The one truly fictional character of the novel Catherine Gray is reeling from not only the shock of a presidential assassination but also information revealed to her by her dying mother. With no one else to turn to for answers, she seeks out Elizabeth. Answers aren't all she wants - vengeance is in her heart so she arrives at Elizabeth's with a gun that has 2 bullets (one for Elizabeth and one for herself). 

I did not like this opening. But like Catherine, I was soon swept up in Elizabeth's story and my irritation with the storytelling method Thornton choose faded into the background. But really this is the only negative thing about the book. (Again, I have to complement the narrator as sometimes in the middle of retelling the past we are brought back to 1963 with an aside from Elizabeth to Catherine and the subtle change in her voice from the past Elizabeth and 1963 Elizabeth immediately clued me in to this change in time.)

I definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction. I am so glad that so many of these untold stories about women are now being shared. If you haven't picked up this book yet, make sure it is on your list of must reads and if it is already on your reading list then move it up to be your next read - you won't be disappointed.

Buy A Most Clever Girl at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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