Jennet Conant has written about a complex woman whose personal magnetism propelled her from a privileged background onto a journey of political and personal adventure but her name isn’t Julia Child. The real star of this book is Jane Foster, while the two names on the cover are drawn to her flame, which ultimately proves to be as destructive as it is alluring.
A Covert Affair serves several functions, not least of which is to illuminate the bitter post-World War II history of Western involvement in the Far East. The story of European colonial interference and the U.S. compromises in this time and place is a fascinating one, and all the more so in this book for being filtered through the secret history of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and in particular the role played by brilliant young women recruited from the Ivy League. They learn how to forge incriminating documents and plan elaborate subterfuges, all the while facing male condescension (“all women in the OSS were ‘girls’, regardless of their age, rank, or responsibilities,” notes Conant). Against this backdrop, Julia McWilliams falls for Paul Child, a not-altogether sympathetic operative besotted, like so many others, with Jane. In fact, Conant argues that it was a conscious attempt on Julia’s behalf to ape Jane Foster’s potent charisma that transformed her own character into the more familiar personality known to us today.
The book comes into its own as the larkish tone of the early chapters (Jane worried about appearing like “just another wealthy dilettante” and you’d be forgiven for agreeing with her assessment) gives way to a more darker portrayal of Jane’s growing disillusionment with her government’s foreign policy, accusing them very publicly of breaking their promises to the peoples of the region and kowtowing to European interests. Her dark trajectory leads to accusations of spying for the Russians, returning the narrative to its opening focus on the McCarthy trials, which also ensnares the Childs. Conant, meanwhile, effortlessly interweaves less fraught moments such as Julia’s discovery of French cuisine.
Throughout the book, the depth and breadth of Conant’s research is astounding. She has extracted real, palpable life from letters, diaries, and as she reveals in the appendix recently decoded and declassified documents, allowing her to write about history with a novelist’s eye for detail. Stage veteran Jan Maxwell knows how to convey this mass of information without overwhelming us, speaking with a consistent tone that is as clear and precise as a stenograph. Her dedicated seriousness can border on the earnest, and her performance carries none of the sheer fun of the young Julia and Jane. But it is a worthy performance she delivers book’s combination of biography, romance, history, and geopolitics, and fully honors Conant’s admirable detective work. Dafydd Phillips