I wanted to like this novel more than I did. I wanted to like it because I believed it might take a new spin on a theme in which I have a lot of literary interest. I wanted to like it equally as much because it was written by a woman whom I believed would share new perspectives on an old topic. And because it’s her first novel, it’s an undertaking of no small consequence and an accomplishment I applaud.
American Spy is written in a different style than run of the mill spy novels. These tales are commonly told in either first person or third person, but Wilkinson soon reveals she is writing her story as a journal for her children so that one day they will better know and understand their mother – and father. While it’s an interesting conceit, it’s often a bit clunky: she has to pause the action to remind us of the underlying form by turning her narration away from us and speaking to her children. IMO, that makes it read more as an autobiography than a novel. The reasons for this narrative approach are made clear in the concluding pages.
The timeless adage for us scribes is to write what we know, and although Wilkinson does a creditable job of getting the story told, throughout it has the superficial shimmer of sunlight glinting off a pond’s surface, teasing us to wonder if there is water of some depth and consequence below. She has woven her fiction together with true facts and circumstances, but I’m not sure that was the credence I sought or needed. I just didn’t feel what Marie was going through, and she went through a lot. When she cried, when she suffered, when she felt passion and intimacy, I didn’t cry or suffer or get swept away along with her.
In fact, in many ways American Spy reads exactly like the diary/journal the author purports it to be: dispassionate, factual, a record of Marie Mitchell’s life as a spy, a sister . . . and more. As I turned the last page I acknowledged that, but it did not leave me with the sense of pleasure and satisfaction I wished for.
But this is a first novel. I hope Lauren Wilkinson will keep writing.