Review: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

I really liked this book about a CIA agent in 1960’s Argentina.  The book checked a lot of boxes for me: historical fiction, set in a foreign country (one I hope to visit soon), an interesting, multi-dimensional female character, and espionage.  It fit in nicely with my recent read of Code Girls and my fascination with The Americans.

Vera is sent by the CIA in 1962 to investigate communist activity in Buenos Aires.  She wiretaps a politician’s office and poses as a college student to learn more about a young radical who may be planning something violent. As Vera struggles with her assignments in a foreign country and at a time of political instability, the book shows us how she got there.  As a teen, Kelly battles with her repressive mother and explores her sexual identity and love for a friend she’s no longer allowed to see.

This book may not be what you expect, because it’s more than a political thriller (though I say that as someone who doesn’t read much of the genre).  You start out thinking Kelly is going to be this hardcore spy, but really she’s someone who has had a tough life and is just trying to do her best in a world that’s not very friendly.  It makes you think about the kinds of people who can do espionage work well.  We need them and I admire what they do – but I’m sure they pay a price for it, not just in confronting danger but in not having close relationships.

It had been a long time since I had gone home with a man, and I felt like I was reverting to an old script, a script I’d learned from novels and films like every other girl: waiting for him to cross the room, watching him nervously refresh his drink. And then later, being small and breathless, and seeing that he liked it.  With women I always felt a bit like we were the first two people to ever do what we were doing, that we were inventing it, that we decided in each transaction who we were.

Knecht gives us a lot of historical detail about the political situation in Argentina, which I appreciated (though some might feel it slows the book down).  There isn’t a ton of action in the book, which makes sense when you think about espionage work.  But even without a lot of action, I definitely felt Kelly’s terror at times at being in a situation that is out of her control.

I don’t want to say more about the book, since Knecht does such a nice job of letting this book gradually unfold.  A lot of times I don’t care for books told by alternating past and present, but here Knecht does it well – I found both timelines were equally interesting, and the present-day story wasn’t just a vehicle for telling the story.  I really wanted to know how Vera got to where she ended up, and where she’ll go next.  And that’s what makes the title perfect for this story.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from NetGalley and Tin House Books.  The book will be published June 12, 2018.

  9 comments for “Review: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

  1. June 9, 2018 at 10:54 am

    Great review of a book focused on a really interesting topic. One quick note – it was exceptionally and regretfully rare to find a woman working overseas as an Operations Officer for the CIA in the 60’s. It was an almost exclusively male club and culture. The women working for the Agency at that time would normally be found in Administrative or Analytical positions. Not sure why the author chose that time period but it disconnects the book a bit from historical reality. I’d recommend “The Night Watch” by David Arlene Phillips as a great historical read to get a feel for what life as an Ops Officer was really like in Latin America in the ‘50s and 60’s. Cheers, Brian

    • June 9, 2018 at 3:34 pm

      Thanks for the information! I’m not surprised to hear that – although I was surprised by the number of women working for Army/Navy during WWII and some of them continued in their fields and made new inroads for other women. Still, fieldwork in the CIA is a whole different profession. Good to know the book might not be entirely historically accurate. I was looking for a good interview with the author about the book subject but didn’t find anything.

  2. June 9, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    …and, here’s some info on the first female Case Officer to be assigned to Moscow Station.

  3. June 17, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    This sounds delightful! I’ve heard only good things about this and am excited to check it out. I also appreciate booksofb’s nonfiction recommendation. I’ve been doing a lot of pairing fiction and nonfiction for my diverse reading challenge and I’d love to do more, because I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

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