Jenoff has written a compelling novel about female British agents serving in occupied France during World War II. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking novel since we learn early on that the odds are against many of the agents lasting long in the field before they’re captured and executed.
The novel is easy to follow since it focuses three characters, albeit with a good supporting cast: Eleanor, who works for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) and champions and then trains and manages female agents in the field; Marie, whom Eleanor recruits due her flawless French; and Grace, who finds an abandoned suitcase in a New York train station after the war and becomes interested in a packet of the agents’ pictures.
The novel moves well, giving readers a sense of what it might have been like for these women to suddenly leave the country without telling anyone where they were going and, after arduous training, finding themselves in harm’s way. Fans of black ops novels might wish that more of the novel concentrated on the field work itself rather than the worries and intrigues at SOE headquarters. However, the girls’ work in the field is well researched and authentic.
The problematic character in the novel is Grace. After stumbling upon the pictures, she feels compelled to learn more about the SOE, Eleanor, and the girls in the packet of photographs. While Grace is a realistic character, inserting her life and her problems into this story takes away from the primary focus of the novel. She is more or less a device the author has used to help convey the story to the readers. While Grace “works” as a character, the novel might well have been stronger if she hadn’t been included.
Taking the story as it is with Grace in the mix, the material is well presented and interesting. Goodness knows the story in “real life” could have happened this way with an unconnected person stumbling upon it and trying to learn more. That said, the novel is well worth the reader’s time.