The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A ’50s mom finds her calling as a spy in the captivating novel ‘A Woman of Intelligence’

Shortly after the end of World War II, Cold War paranoia spread like a virus. Americans were warned that communism was infecting the country, and if it wasn’t stamped out, democracy would implode. As Karin Tanabe writes in her bold historical novel “A Woman of Intelligence,” by 1954, the word “Red” was everywhere: “Russian Reds, Red China this and that, control of Red unions, warnings about Red teachers. The Subversive Activities Control Board was formed by our government to find and stomp out the Red threat in America, from schoolrooms to boardrooms.”

While the government was trying to weed out communists, real and imagined, American women were rethinking their role in society. Staying home and raising a family was considered a sacred duty, but a growing number of women wanted careers outside the home. Like Peggy Olson in “Mad Men,” they were rejecting the June Cleaver stereotype and opting for a paycheck.

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One such woman is Katharina “Rina” West Edgeworth, the bright and sophisticated young mother and wife at the center of “A Woman of Intelligence.” Fluent in four languages, Rina spent six years working as an interpreter at the United Nations before she quit to stay home with her children. That’s what her husband, Tom, wanted and, not surprisingly, so did the men with whom she worked. One male colleague told her that the sight of her pregnant belly in the halls of the U.N. was making people feel uncomfortable.

Rina’s husband is chief of pediatric surgery at Lenox Hill, they live in a luxury apartment building, and Rina wears designer clothes. The only thing missing in her life is joy. And like the proverbial bird in a gilded cage, she stares out the windows of her Fifth Avenue apartment wondering how she lost it. “I’d forgotten that freedom was the most glamorous thing anyone could possess.” She loves her children, but her mind “no longer fizzed with intellectual rigor; it bubbled with boredom in French, Italian, German, and English.”

Life has bigger plans for Rina. She is approached by an FBI agent who asks her to insinuate herself into the life of Jacob Gornev, a man she knew at Columbia University. Jacob is a member of the Communist Party and is passing U.S. documents to the Russians. Her mission as an informer: to gain his trust by making him believe she is couriering government documents for a Communist front group and report back to the FBI on his activities. (Tanabe says the idea for her intriguing story line was inspired in part by Elizabeth Bentley, an American who spied for the Soviets in the 1940s then confessed it all to the FBI.)

The agent’s request brings Rina back to life. “Why should I be reduced to being a simple housewife? What if I really were the perfect person for the job?” So she readily agrees and discovers that she “hadn’t felt this alive in months.”

The external thrills in this quasi-spy novel ratchet up when undercover agents are exposed, killings occur, documents are passed and Rina tries to hide her secret life from her husband. The internal thrills belong to Rina, who begins to like herself again.

Female-centered historical novels are dogged by questions of accuracy. Hence the author’s note.

There is so much punchy dialogue and funny-sad humor in this novel. When Tom can’t relate to the challenges of childbirth or caring for children full-time, his mother sets him straight: “You men refuse to acknowledge it all. Giving birth? It’s not exactly one long nude cocktail party with quite the favor at the end.” When a psychiatrist tells Rina she has too much time on her hands and recommends macrame or quilting, she says: “I have a master’s degree from Columbia, and it is not in quilting.” In that case, he responds, “I’ll leave you a bottle of Thorazine.”

This is a mid-20th-century period piece, but oh, how familiar it all seems: Women are judged for not having children, for delaying motherhood or for having children and not staying home. Most radically of all, Tanabe writes spot-on about something many men and women are still loath to talk about: that women can love their children but still crave and need a life outside the home.

Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.

A Woman of Intelligence

By Karin Tanabe

St. Martin’s. 368 pp. $27.99

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