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After a 33 year career working as a covert operative with the C.I.A., Matthews no doubt could have written an intriguing best seller about his days of espionage. But evidenced by this debut novel, Matthews not only knows his tradecraft, he has the writing chops to produce better than a one time tell-all. In the tradition of other great former spy-turned-novelists, Fleming, McCarry, le Carré -- Red Sparrow is a smart, tightly constructed novel that lays out such an information-packed, step by step foundation, that the listener feels complicit in the Cold War cat and mouse. Worthy of comparisons to the aforementioned authors...and with just enough playfulness to apparently keep it out of the Federal shredders.
This is the caliber of novel you expect from a veteran author -- or should I say "seasoned" author? Included at the end of each chapter is the recipe for some exotic dish that one of the characters has been noshing on -- an addition that has some critic's calling the bonus recipe a distraction and an unnecessary and gimmick. (I say if James Bond can have Pussy Galore, a razor brimmed bowler hat, and exploding toothpaste - Matthews can give his readers recipes.) Ignore these effete literary snobs; Matthew intentionally provided them with a bull's eye, saying in an interview he did, "The real world of intelligence work is a lot of waiting, analysis, research, so I had to insert some excitement in the fictional plot." Until reading the interview, I had wondered if a clue was provided in each recipe; every element of this story is so well constructed it would make sense--but not so...sometimes a red herring is just a red herring.
Also raising a critical eyebrow is the synesthete seductress (she sees colors around people), Russian intelligence officer Dominika. Her aura-enhanced vision however, is blessedly not an X-man-ish superpower, but an actual phenomenon that some people claim to experience (including author Vladim Nabokov). The condition is used as an ineffectual trait that adds interest to her character without really affecting her performance or the story. This was a bigger issue than the recipe, and I'm still chewing on that element being thrown into classic spy fiction...wondering if Matthews has future plans with this fascinating female spy.
The detail here is absorbing; the treachery and deceit will have you wide-eyed and tense, paranoid about dotting an "i" (the dot could be the message!). Maybe the recipes were at least a hint about how to enjoy this novel...This kind of from the ground up detailing takes time; the tension builds slowly, like the warm kettle of water that slowly comes to a boil and catches/cooks that proverbial frog...when it starts to bubble it is fast and furious. And unblinkingly vicious.
A difficult novel to narrate, with the Russian characters, dialogue, and terms, and Jeremy Bobb adds an understated panache to the story with his reading. Great read/highly recommend to fans of spy fiction. Best case scenario: Matthews continues with this character and his unique style and *packaging* (I, for one, would love the cookbook).
161 of 169 people found this review helpful
The next generation of spy-turned-spy novelist is here. Joining Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ian Flemming, John le Carré, James Church, (and maybe -- if my suspicions are correct -- Robert Littell and Olen Steinhauer too), Jason Matthews shows that most of the best spy fiction is actually written by former spies/spooks.
While not a perfect espionage novel (using recipes to separate the chapters seems a little overcooked and trite), the Red Sparrow is still an amazing debut novel. When the novel gets away from acrobatic sex and ethnic food and instead sticks with spy craft, agent development, mole detection, etc., it is brilliant. 'Red Sparrow' easily fits into the same stature of post-Cold War spy thrillers that are currently only produced by le Carré, Steinhauer, Littell, and Church.
So yes, it isn't exactly spy literature, but it is a fun and diversionary summer read that mixes a low brow Bond (sexy limping vixens and absurdly wicked villains) with more high brow Smiley (complexity of motivations and opacity of belief). This mixture could have almost sunk the novel, but Matthews pulls it off with a bold flourish that is both surprising and enjoyable. Thanks @Melinda for the recommendation.
52 of 59 people found this review helpful