I picked this book up because it’s a spy thriller with a twist – it’s the story of Ruth, a young woman discovering that her mother spent years working as a spy for the British government during the early years of WWII. Cool premise, right? It also won the Costa Novel Award in 2006, so, you know, bonus.
This is the second William Boyd book I’ve tried to read, but the first I’ve finished. The other was Ordinary Thunderstorms (excellent title, amirite?) which I liked the premise of, but found dragged and got unnecessarily convoluted. It didn’t help that I started it on a busy vacation and ended up putting it down a few times too many.
This one I found a little easier to get into. I liked the premise, and the structure – alternating chapters between Ruth’s present and her mother’s past – was a great way to move the story along. It worked better than most multiple perspective novels I’ve read – I was equally interested in both stories.
I love spy stories, but I have to admit that I don’t consider most of them to be very realistic. Great entertainment, sure, but overly dramatic. It’s one action sequence after another with some impressive superhuman stunts, impossibly intelligent plot-lines and too many close calls to be believed. This one was different in that a lot of the spy story was the humdrum business of information gathering and dissemination – not too different from any office job. Sure, there was operational training and routine counter-surveillance measures, but there was a lot of down time. It seemed like often the hardest part of the job was not to become complacent when everything just seemed so normal. I found this refreshing on the one hand, but on the other hand it did make it drag a bit. I had the same experience with Ordinary Thunderstorms – halfway through it seemed to get in its own way and just felt like more work than I was up for in a book that was, essentially, touted as a thriller.
I think the biggest problem I had with this book, however, is the choice of voices. The way the story is structured is that Ruth’s mother, Eva, is writing her memoirs a chapter at a time, which she is then giving to Ruth as a means of sharing her past with her daughter. And yet, it is Ruth’s chapters that are written in the first person, and Eva’s that are written in the third. I don’t know anyone who writes their own story in the third person. I suspect this was to create a sense of time – having the present in the more intimate first person makes it feel more immediate. In theory, that makes sense. But I wish both had been first person. The switch was jarring and took me out of the story, making it harder to connect with. It didn’t help that I really didn’t like either of the protagonists that much. Ruth was a bit wishy washy and self-absorbed, while Eva’s insistence on making Ruth work for any information about what Eva was doing when she could have just sat her down and told her (I’m not just talking about the stories – she kept doing odd things that Ruth had to examine for motive and to figure out if her mother was hiding something from her) just made me want to give her a good shake.
So I’m left feeling like this was one of the best spy novels I’ve read, but also one of the hardest to get through. Part of the problem, with both of the Boyd books I’ve tried, was timing. I read both at times when I couldn’t sit down and dedicate a significant amount of time to reading, and both don’t lend themselves well to being read in short bursts. I think if I had been able to dedicate a couple of days to reading each book, or if I were a faster reader, I would have found them more enjoyable.
The premise of this book was, as I said, marvelous, and it felt more realistic than I had expected. I appreciated that the characters had to learn some hard lessons about trust, loss and resilience. This would be a great book for readers who are okay with a plot that occasionally takes a meandering detour, or who enjoy tales of espionage but prefer a bit more literary in their thrillers. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who has read this (or any of his other work). Did you have any of the issues I had? Did you find it difficult to get through, or is it just a result of my slow consumption?
It is Paris, 1939. Twenty-eight year old Eva Delectorskaya is at the funeral of her beloved younger brother. Standing among her family and friends she notices a stranger. Lucas Romer is a patrician looking Englishman with a secretive air and a persuasive manner. He also has a mysterious connection to Kolia, Eva’s murdered brother. Romer recruits Eva and soon she is traveling to Scotland to be trained as a spy and work for his underground network. After a successful covert operation in Belgium, she is sent to New York City, where she is involved in manipulating the press in order to shift American public sentiment toward getting involved in WWII.
Three decades on and Eva has buried her dangerous history. She is now Sally Gilmartin, a respectable English widow, living in a picturesque Cotswold village. No one, not even her daughter Ruth, knows her real identity. But once a spy, always a spy. Sally has far too many secrets, and she has no one to trust. Before it is too late, she must confront the demons of her past. This time though she can’t do it alone, she needs Ruth’s help. – Goodreads
Book Title: Restless
Author: William Boyd
Published By: Bloomsbury USA
Genre: Fiction, Thriller, Espionage, WWII
Date Read: November 27-December 9, 2017