A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

If you can’t afford to live in a New York apartment bordering Central Park, wear couturier gowns, dine in five-star restaurants, but long to savour such a life style, this book is for you. It indulges the dreams of those who regard a life of luxury to be their ideal, a path to happiness.

To complete this fantasy, the addition of a husband who is charming, handsome, wealthy, and a talented paediatric surgeon attached to New York’s leading hospital, makes the heroine of A Woman of Intelligence a character who, most certainly, ‘has it all’….

Katharina, the leading character, married to fabulous surgeon Tom, is also blessed with a perfect job as translator in French/English at the United Nations.

It is the fifties and, prior to her marriage, there was an exuberance springing from the end of the horrors of WW2, which is conveyed by Katharina and other attractive young girls in her orbit, living dangerously. They had multiple partners, often just one-night stands, drank excessively, and appeared not to have a care in the world.

At this stage, the novel reads like a tourist guide, with countless names of streets, buildings, locations, even stops on the subway. It seemed to be an effort to prove how familiar the author was with the city.

Katharina’s living dream evaporates and the reality of motherhood replaces it. The unpleasant aspects of it in the form of vomit, dirty nappies, demanding screams and worse, make her days spent caring for her two little sons verge on a nightmare.

The familiar internal battles of a new mother, agonising over her plight, are interrupted by her being approached by an FBI agent. A proposition is made. Being postwar fifties America, the spectre of Russia and the spread of Communism looms large. A former student lover from university days is under surveillance.

Her life as an agent begins, her family oblivious. Karin Tanabe, the author, has resisted the temptation to portray a ruthless sophisticated network. Convincingly, Katharina is nervous, anxious, yet welcoming the change from her domestic challenges which had begun to overwhelm her – even sour her relationship with Tom.

The mood of the novel alters dramatically. Katharina, now an intelligence operative, is constantly juggling her two lives, devoted mother and FBI agent, treading an increasingly tense and dangerous path. Her former lover, Jacob, still enamoured of her, emerges as the most complex character of the males. He is her target.

Katharina’s handler is Turner Wells, a handsome negro, and she is lead into complications which add a much-needed pace and interest to the narrative.

The novel gathers momentum. Its strength lies in the portrayal of espionage in its early stages in the Cold War. There is danger, suspicion, deadly outcomes against the background of the newly founded FBI and operatives feeling their way, united by a determination to make a safe and more equitable world.

A Woman of Intelligence is inconsistent in its appeal. Dialogue is clever at times, but it’s unconvincing in its attempt to present a world that is alien to the reader. Everyone is brilliant, beautiful.  The children, Peter and Gerrit, are unattractive to put it mildly; this actually would deter a woman contemplating motherhood.

The undercover chapters are sketchy and lack atmosphere and ultimately, the book is a

frustrated mother’s attempt to add a dimension to a life strangled by the mundane world of toddlers, even when she has been showered in good fortune….

It would appeal to those who seek a diverting tale of a young woman who craves stimulation and challenge – but not too much!

A Woman of Intelligence

[2021]

by Karin Tanabe

Simon and Schuster

ISBN 978 176110 198 4

$33.40; 370pp

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