A Most Clever Girl – Stephanie Marie Thornton

A Most Clever Girl: A Novel of an American Spy by Stephanie Marie Thornton
Published by Berkley Books on September 14, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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A thrilling tale of love, loyalty, and espionage, based on the incredible true story of Elizabeth Bentley, a Cold War double agent spying for the Russians and the United States, from USA Today bestselling author Stephanie Marie Thornton.
1963: Reeling from the death of her mother and President Kennedy's assassination, Catherine Gray shows up on Elizabeth Bentley's doorstep demanding answers to the shocking mystery just uncovered about her family. What she doesn't expect is for Bentley to ensnare her in her own story of becoming a controversial World War II spy and Cold War informer...
Recruited by the American Communist Party to spy on fascists at the outbreak of World War II, a young Bentley--code name Clever Girl--finds she has an unexpected gift for espionage. But after falling desperately in love with her handler, Jacob Golos, Elizabeth makes another unexpected discovery when she learns her lover is actually a Russian spy. Together, they will build the largest Soviet spy network in America and Elizabeth will become its uncrowned Red Spy Queen. However, once the war ends and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. become embroiled in the Cold War, it is Elizabeth who will dangerously clash with the NKVD, the brutal Soviet espionage agency.
As Catherine listens to Elizabeth's harrowing tale, she empathizes with her, that is, until she uncovers startling revelations that link the two women's lives in shocking ways. Faced with the idea that her entire existence is based on a lie, Catherine realizes there can be many sides to the truth. And only Elizabeth Bentley can tell her what that truth really is.

Grab a steaming cup of coffee, tea, or mulled wine.  Settle into a comfortable chair in your pandemic pants and fuzzy socks.  Prepare yourself for a story of excitement, heartbreak, intensity, and high stakes.  A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton is a well-written work of historical fiction about Elizabeth Bentley.  Known as “Clever Girl,” “Gregory,” and “Miss Wise,” she goes from a naïve young woman searching for acceptance to a skilled spymaster for the NKVD during WWII and the beginning of the Cold War.

I have noticed a trend in my readings of historical fiction.  The novels begin in one decade and jump back in time, providing interludes of characters’ memories.  My preference is that stories move chronologically.  A Most Clever Girl, has two different but simultaneous timelines.  When focused on the past, however, Elizabeth Bentley provided commentary from the story’s present.  Unique manner of writing a book?  Surely.  I, however, wanted to be wholly transported back in history.  By having the interludes in parentheses, Thornton broke that vision.

Thornton wrote A Most Clever Girl as a narration: Elizabeth Bentley recounting her background to Catherine Gray.  That’s why I suggested readers get comfortable.  The book is like sitting at your grandfather’s feet, listening to his wartime tales.  In that sense, the present-day comments in A Most Clever Girl were appropriate.  I just…didn’t like them.

Catherine Gray, I also found to be cliché.  I identified who she was early in A Most Clever Girl, and Catherine was very one-note.  Except in the last couple chapters, I did not like her.  Additionally, Thornton suffered from an error in novels that drives me bonkers: Using characters’ names in two-person dialogue.  You don’t need to say “Catherine” or “Elizabeth” at the end of every spoken sentence.  The reader gets the picture, especially since the only two people in Elizabeth Bentley’s house during her story?  Catherine and Elizabeth.

Unintentionally, I listened to the audiobook version of Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya at the same time I read A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton.  Agent Sonya is a biography, following the life of Ursula Burton, a German Jew who spied for the Soviet Union during WWII.  So, I simultaneously experienced the tales of two female spies of the same time period.  I normally prefer fiction over nonfiction, but I liked Agent Sonya more.  Both Elizabeth Bentley and Ursula Burton were spies of importance and influence, but Macintyre was just a little more successful at telling Burton’s story than Thornton was with Bentley.

I enjoyed A Most Clever Girl, and I don’t regret reading it; I just think it could’ve been better.