Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Book Review: A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe

A Fifth Avenue address, parties at the Plaza, two healthy sons, and the ideal husband: what looks like a perfect life for Katharina Edgeworth is anything but. It’s 1954, and the post-war American dream has become a nightmare.

A born and bred New Yorker, Katharina is the daughter of immigrants, Ivy-League-educated, and speaks four languages. As a single girl in 1940s Manhattan, she is a translator at the newly formed United Nations, devoting her days to her work and the promise of world peace—and her nights to cocktails and the promise of a good time. 

Now the wife of a beloved pediatric surgeon and heir to a shipping fortune, Katharina is trapped in a gilded cage, desperate to escape the constraints of domesticity. So when she is approached by the FBI and asked to join their ranks as an informant, Katharina seizes the opportunity. A man from her past has become a high-level Soviet spy, but no one has been able to infiltrate his circle. Enter Katharina, the perfect woman for the job.

Navigating the demands of the FBI and the secrets of the KGB, she becomes a courier, carrying stolen government documents from D.C. to Manhattan. But as those closest to her lose their covers, and their lives, Katharina’s secret soon threatens to ruin her.

Katharina Edgeworth has a life that many would envy, but in A Woman of Intelligence, we find a wife and mother who feels trapped, overwhelmed and invisible. Although she has a lush life in her upscale New York apartment with her successful doctor husband, she misses her days as an interpreter at the UN. This “past life” catches up to her when she is secretly recruited by the FBI, wherein espionage ensues, all while she struggles to maintain her life as dutiful wife and mother.

Karin Tanabe’s novel of the science of spy craft and the art of homemaking was an interesting mix of intrigue and mundane domesticity under the thumb of aristocracy. There were times when Katharina (“Rina” to her friends) juggled some of the very joys and struggles that I have as a mother, although I lack her door man and housekeeper. She loved her children deeply, almost painfully. Yet there are days when she felt overpowered by the life she chose. Her chance to break out of her upper-class confinement to secretly work for the government provided her an opportunity to use her talents outside of the scope of motherhood and marriage. Fortunately I’ve been able to do this myself, although not surreptitiously, but with my husband’s blessing as I attend graduate school and also play the French Horn in local ensembles. True, Rina’s exploits might be more exciting, but this reader understands the pull to retain a sense of identity after motherhood.

A Woman of Intelligence certainly is about the intelligence community, but there is more of a focus on Rina as a woman, and her dealings within her family than I had anticipated there would be. Karin Tanable’s writing is exquisite, and while I wouldn’t remove anything she included regarding Rina’s life at home, I would have enjoyed more content on the espionage side of things. That said, this novel is superbly written and my minor quibble only comes from a place of “wanting more”. 

As previously mentioned, I am in graduate school these days, so reading novels occurs less during the semester months. However, I was fortunate enough to obtain an audiobook copy of this title for review. I ended up splurging and I also bought a hard copy of the book from a local independent bookstore, but 95% of the novel was taken in via audio. Narrator Jennifer Jill Araya had quite a task before her in presenting this story. Not only were many of the characters staunchly American, but Araya also had to enunciate in accents from various countries as well, such as Russia and England. While I found her portrayal of some of the men a bit distracting (which is usually the case with most narrators when voicing the opposite sex), her ability to audibly depict the voices of these individuals from multiple cultures was very skilled. Her Russian accent in particular seemed quite authentic.

A Woman of Intelligence was a smart, heartfelt foray into the world of upper crust Manhattan, a love letter to the city of New York, and a captivating peek into the world of the FBI in the 1950s. Tanabe leaves the door open at the conclusion of the tale for the possibility of a sequel, and I for one hope that this comes to fruition. Katharina Edgeworth is truly at the beginning of her journey, and Karin Tanabe is just the woman to lead her onward into new ventures and escapades.

About the Author

Karin Tanabe is the author of A Woman of Intelligence, The Gilded Years, The Price of Inheritance, A Hundred Suns, The Diplomat’s Daughter, and The List.

A former Politico reporter, her writing has also appeared in the Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and The Washington Post. She has made frequent appearances as a celebrity and politics expert on Entertainment Tonight, CNN, and The CBS Early Show. A graduate of Vassar College, Karin lives in Washington, DC. To learn more visit KarinTanabe.com.

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