In this World War II–set debut novel, a Romanian woman becomes an Allied spy but often finds herself just a pawn in a man’s world.
In 1939, Frans VonBrutal, a sadistic Nazi SS officer, motorcycles from Berlin toward Sofia, Bulgaria, looking for information (hopefully to be extracted with torture) and people to exploit. In Romania, he meets a beautiful young waitress named Gilda, who, despite being intelligent, is still attractive to men. Although Gilda is no friend to the SS, telling VonBrutal directly that he’s “a fucking Nazi asshole,” “a Nazi scumbag,” and a “putrid Nazi,” he decides not just to force sex upon her, but to employ her as a spy as well. This he manages despite her initial dislike: “When he lay on top of her, she welled up such a warmth of euphoria.” James Benson, an American spy with demigodlike charisma, meets and beds Gilda, now a nightclub dancer in Sofia. VonBrutal orders her to obtain James’ briefcase, but she falls abjectly in love with the American despite knowing she means nothing to him. After shooting VonBrutal and escaping, Gilda is told by Hans, a Hungarian recruiter, that she’ll travel to Central America to spy: “I am sure you will be just fine. After all, you have a perfect ass. Good luck.” Working as an entertainer, Gilda continues spying for her new handler, Stephon, a closeted homosexual in love with James, and attends Army Intelligence School. In Uruguay, VonBrutal shows up, threatening Gilda, who again shoots him. After the war, Gilda waitresses, then becomes a Pan Am stewardess, a cover for her covert activities, which now include assassination. In Cairo, she has a third bloody confrontation with the hard-to-kill VonBrutal. Used, abused, set up, and abandoned, Gilda nevertheless hangs on to hope.
In her ambitious novel, O’Hara provides engrossing, well-researched details of early espionage organizations. But she never seems sure about what kind of book she’s writing: Nazi-themed murder porn? Steamy spy thriller? Romance for the ages? Political outcry on behalf of women’s dignity? All of these elements are in place, but they clash roughly and often unconvincingly, as when James’ sordid relationship with Gilda is characterized by the grand phrase “the two were to be separated between oceans, war, and time itself.” Rather than developing her themes, the author repeats them, often almost verbatim. “Sex and violence go hand in hand,” thinks VonBrutal’s wife; six pages later, “Sex and violence went hand in hand,” thinks VonBrutal. O’Hara’s lack of subtlety makes the work’s pronouncements heavy-handed. As long as “women knew their place, all would be well in the world,” muses James late in a narrative that has made many similar reflections. The book feels naïve, with odd stock-photo illustrations, unnecessary footnotes (for Jägermeister liqueur, for example), unlikely dialogue, and sentences that land with a thud (“Feeling used and discarded was an upsetting emotion”).
An uneven espionage tale.