Book Review

A Covert Affair:  Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jennet Conant - Guest Review by CarrieS


Title: A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS
Author: Jennet Conant
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster 2011
ISBN: 978439163528
Genre: Nonfiction

Book Cover Taking a slight break from our steady diet of high-fiber romance (what? Sure it is. If you’re reading paper books, that’s fiber. And if you’re reading digitally, you’re eating air. Either way, healthy!) Carrie S. has a review of a nonfiction book.

And now for something – completely different:

I was at the library when I saw this book, A Covert Affair:  Julia and Paul Child in the OSS.  Well, who doesn’t love Julia Child?  I was so excited that I got little heart shapes in my eyes, like a cartoon animal in love.  Paul and Julia had such an amazing real life romance, and here was a tale of their war years as secret intelligence agents and, later, the pursuit of alleged communists by McCarthy. Then, I thought to myself, “Spies!  Spies are geeky!” and I knew you wonderful geeky Bitches must hear all about this book even though it is a biography and not a romance novel.  In some ways, I was deeply disappointed.  The book lacked depth and context, and its primary focus was on characters other than Paul and Julia, which was a surprise given the title and the cover art.  However, the parts that were about Paul and Julia were wonderful – warm, funny, exasperating, and moving, and the overall story was interesting and entertaining.

First:  the good.  All the stuff about Julia and Paul is great.  Julia met Paul while they were both serving in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II.  Julia had lived a sheltered life and was desperate for a change, so she was thrilled to be posted overseas in Sri Lanka and then in China.  Her first introduction to inspiring food came during those war years (although she never learned to cook Asian food, claiming that it took a lifetime to master French food).  Julia liked Paul right away, but alas, Paul took a while to realize his own feelings, and watching him do so is both infuriating and delightful.

I regret to inform the few of you who don’t know that, back in the day, Paul was sort of an asshole.  He liked Julia, he spent lots of time with her, and he went on and on in letters about her many great qualities, but he felt she was too unsophisticated and inexperienced to satisfy the super stud he evidentially considered himself to be.  Friendship with Julia was great, but when it came to love, Paul would settle for nothing less than his ideal woman.  Here’s a quote regarding the type of woman Paul intended to hold out for:  “She was a ‘Zorina”, in honor of the famous ballet dancer Vera Zorina, who possessed, besides beauty and a goddesslike body, ‘what is lacking in this warring, man-driven world:  a sense of the continuity of life and perpetual sympathy, fellow-feeling, and consolation’”.


Poor Julia was not in possession of a goddesslike body, at least, not the type of goddess Paul presumably had in mind, and she was smart but, in Paul’s words, “in need of training, molding, and informing” to meet Paul’s standards of sophistication.  Julia read everything he passed on to her and followed him around in a consoling manner when he was depressed, which was often, while Paul complained about being lonely and praised Julia’s “enduring friendship”.  Oh, Julia.  I have been there, done that, bought the “I’m trapped in Buddy Land” T-Shirt.  If I didn’t know Paul was going to pull himself together I would invent a time machine, go to Sri Lanka, and slap them both and then feed poor Julia cookies until she recovered.

Eventually, and this isn’t a spoiler because I think it’s common knowledge, Paul saw the light and in fact became Julia’s greatest supporter.  Somehow, in true romance novel fashion, they went from being student and teacher to partners.  I think one reason they were able to do this had to do with the fact that although Paul clearly had some very unrealistic ideas about women, he also respected women who were smart, knowledgeable, and opinionated.  Watching Paul and Julia grow together was a truly delightful aspect of A Covert Affair.

As far as geek stuff goes, I know you are all wondering just how much nifty spy stuff is actually involved.  Neither Paul nor Julia were dashing secret agents of the James Bond type.  Julia’s work has often been dismissed as “filing”.  That is what she did, but Conant takes pains to point out that her job was quite a bit more complicated than just stuffing papers in cabinets.  She had to supervise a large staff, sort through thousands of top secret documents, cross reference them, and archive them in accordance with multiple officials from multiple military branches, all of which had their own systems and codes.  Julia was like a human, top secret “Google”.  Meanwhile, other people in the book, most notably Jane Foster, were involved with coming up with propaganda and other means to demoralize the enemy.  So, the book contains a minimum of derring-do, but it is a really interesting look at the people who worked in the background of the OSS – and the harrowing plane trips, floods, and offices shared with tarantulas and cobras, not to mention an ever-present threat from disease and possibly being overrun by the Japanese, makes even filing seem pretty danged exciting. 

Now:  the bad.  To start with, despite the cover, the liner notes, and the advertising, most of the book isn’t about the Childs (do you suppose their friends ever referred to them as “The Children?”).  Most of the book is about Jane Foster, who they knew briefly during their OSS years and again briefly in Paris.  She’s not a side note – she really is the main character, and whole chapters go by with no mention of Paul and Julia.  This would be fine if the book was entitled, A Covert Affair:  Jane Foster and her Time in the OSS with a few side notes about her friends Paul and Julia Child.  But, that’s not the title, or the description on the sleeve, and if I had just forked out a whopping $28 (or $15.40 on Amazon) for a hardback biography of two people who are in no more than a third of the book, I would be really, truly, pissed off.  Jane’s story really is fascinating, and involves all sorts of Soviet spy mysteries as well as the WWII work, but I have to fault this book for misleading advertising even though I don’t know how much of that is the fault of the author, and even though the story you actually do get is quite good.

The other thing that really infuriated me was the cultural bias.  A biographer has to be very careful to make clear when she is expressing the opinions of her subjects, when she is expressing her own opinions, and when she is stating a fact.  It comes as no surprise that most of the Americans who worked in Asia in WWII were pretty racist, but it is distressing to hear multiple sentences by the author that state the racist views of the American OSS members as facts.  Here’s a glowing example:  “[keeping native agents happy] was more complicated than it might seem, as they suffered from all kinds of fears, superstitions, and complexes”.

Usually I try not to read reviews of a book I’m reviewing myself, because I want you to get my opinion, not an opinion I’m parroting from someone else.  In this case, I did read several reviews, and though all of them mentioned the focus on Foster, none of them mentioned the cultural bias of the author, who focuses on the perceptions of one group of people (the Americans) to the exclusion of all others. Maybe that’s because Jane Foster, while patronizing, is at least civil to the Asians she comes into contact with, does not consider all Japanese to be evil, and devotes much of her career to exposing colonialist injustices in Southeast Asia at great cost to herself.  Additionally, quotes by the author such as the one above are mixed in with so many quotes by OSS agents that maybe other readers feel it’s safe to assume that Conant is just continuing to express their thoughts and not attempting to list facts.  Still, it seems outrageous to me that Conant doesn’t seem to have interviewed a single resident of the region or turned to a single Asian source for her book (with one exception) despite the fact that it revolves around Asia.  If none were available, I wish she had acknowledged that gap in her afterword or introduction.  I could not help but compare Conant’s complete lack of Sri Lankan, Chinese, or Vietnamese representation with the way Laura Hillenbrand handled a similar situation in Unbroken, her biography of a POW in Japan.  Without distracting from her main character’s story, misrepresenting his understandably angry views, or apologizing for the atrocities the Japanese visited upon POWs, Hillenbrand managed to at least briefly address the context and motivations of Japanese guards and civilians in that time and place.  Maybe Hillenbrand can give Conant some lessons before Conant sets another book overseas.

I really waffled over the grade for Covert Affair, because there is some great content in it, the story is compelling, and the writing style is very fluent and enjoyable.  However, I am so ticked off about the misleading title, the heavy racial and cultural bias, and an overall lack of depth that I’m grading it C+.  I noticed as I typed this review that my feelings about the book swung dramatically from total enjoyment (the romance) to complete annoyance (the bias).  Having said that, if you walk into the book knowing that you will get a light, fairly superficial, heavily biased, but highly entertaining story which happens to include many delightful vignettes about the Childs, I think you’ll really enjoy it.  I should also mention that the bias is only evident in certain sections of the book, which is why I was able to enjoy the other sections without tossing the whole thing out the window.  The romance is lovely and proves that Smart is Sexy, and the spy stuff is geeky fun.  Just be warned that the cover lies, lies, lies!

This book is available fromAmazon | Kindle | BN & nook | Book Depository | WORD Brooklyn’s eBookstore

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  1. 1

    Thanks for this. I’m unlikely to read the book, simply because I’m not a huge fan of cooking, even with cultural icons like the late Julia Child.

    Nonetheless, the details about the OSS and the Childs’ relationship made the review interesting—maybe more so than the book itself—and I enjoyed reading the review.

  2. 2
    AgTigress says:

    As a Brit, I know and care very little about Julia Child (well, how many of you lot would be interested in the life of Elizabeth David, for example?), but anything good and factual about the Second World War does appeal to me.  American perspectives and preoccupations were not the same as ours, and so I am interested to learn about them.  The title alone, then, would have turned me right off, but after reading this thorough and thoughtful review, I think this is a book I might well find rewarding, cultural bias and all.

  3. 3
    hollygee says:

    AgTigress—Elizabeth David? Me. And I learned of her from MFK Fisher and Child. Fascinating woman.

  4. 4
    AgTigress says:

    AgTigress—Elizabeth David? Me.

    LOL!  But I bet you are a bit unusual! ;-)

  5. 5
    Diva says:

    Gah! Thank you I will skip this one.

    I have picked it up in a bookstore and swooned over the jacket copy but thankfully resisted the hardcover price, thinking that I would wait for paperback to read a classic true love story set in the tumultuous wartime Asia.

    Uh, I was not in the market for a misleadingly titled book about some spy chick who knew some people who were famous later on. Jeez.

  6. 6
    Ann G says:

    I MIGHT have picked it up at the library…but not now.

  7. 7
    TaraL says:

    Elizabeth David? Me. And I learned of her from MFK Fisher and Child.

    This is just one of the many reasons I love this blog (and the Cherries, too). Being a Julia Child and MFK Fisher fan, I must now go and seek info on Elizabeth David. A quick look at Wikipedia assures me that it will be worth the time.

  8. 8

    Love Julia Child –

    I’m also a foodie. Am posting this on Sunday, 6/12/11.  Tonight at 8pm on the Food Network, the Competition is Romance Novel Cakes. if you’re familiar w/ the show, you know the cakes are always creative and fun. I can’t wait to see how they do w/romance?  Naked man tittie cakes or all hears and flowers?  Will any bodices rip or will there be any mention of that – hope not…

    My mind boogles and boggles…

    If you miss it, I’m sure it’ll be repeated and if you have Time Warner Cable, I think Food Network is available on demand a day or so after the particular show.

  9. 9
    AgTigress says:

    TaraL., Elizabeth David was quite a remarkable woman, and has been widely credited with bringing about the revolution in British cuisine that began to gather pace in the 1960s and 1970s.  There is some truth in this:  her books were certainly very influential.  But there were other factors, too.  One was that British cooking was in an unprecedented slump in the immediately post-War years, much worse than it had been in the early 20th century;  there were plenty of privileged people who were familiar with Continental cuisine from the pre-War years, but during and immediately after the period of stringent food rationing (1940-1954), nobody, however rich, could make anything but the plainest traditional fare at home because many of the ingredients were simply not available, and they could only eat exotic dishes in expensive French restaurants.
    But even more important was burgeoning affluence and especially the introduction of the relatively inexpensive package holiday in the 1960s.  Tens of thousands of Brits who had never been abroad before were able to take holidays in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, Greece, Turkey etc., and started to learn about Continental and Mediterranean cuisine.  When I was a child, you could only buy olive oil in tiny bottles in a pharmacy.  By the late 1960s you could buy proper bottles of it in supermarkets. 
    So really Elizabeth David just rode an existing wave of change.  The public, ordinary middle-class people, were already emerging from the gloom of post-War austerity and getting seriously interested in good food and in different ethnic cuisines.  This was also the period when Middle Eastern and Asian restaurants began to open in some numbers in British cities.  (We have had Indian restaurants since the early 19thC, of course.  Curry has been regarded as ‘English’ for about 200 years).
    But Elizabeth David was probably the first British cookery writer to encourage ordinary British home cooks to make classic French, provincial French and Mediterranean dishes, so she was important.

  10. 10
    JamiSings says:

    @Ag – Too bad most Americans only know Gordan Ramsey.

    I’ve never been big on Julia myself. I prefered The Frugal Gourmet aka Jeff Smith.

  11. 11
    AgTigress says:

    Too bad most Americans only know Gordan Ramsey.

    Do they?  He’s a much later generation, but anyway, TV chefs are performance artists as much as, or more than, they are food experts.  The first famous British television cook (in the later 1950s) was a formidable female called Fanny Cradock, who used to cook on camera wearing full evening dress, including gloves.  Probably against health and safety regulations these days.  She was a pretty weird character;  amongst other things, I believe she was a bigamist.  She certainly ‘lived in sin’ at a time when that was considered scandalous.  We didn’t have a TV at home when I was a teenager, so I regret to say that I have only seen the occasional archive b&w film clip of her performances.

  12. 12

    I remember the British cook “The Galloping Gourmet” from when I was a youngster, but he seemed to be best known for his double entendres rather than his ability to teach cooking. Don’t know if his show originated in the UK or in the US.

  13. 13
    Lori says:

    I had pretty much the same reaction to this book that Sarah did. I found it interesting, but it wasn’t about the Childs and I finished the book more than a little annoyed by the false advertising. I was glad that I had borrowed it from the library because if I had paid for it, especially hardback pricing, I would have been angry.

    I think that for someone interested in the Childs, Jane Foster or the Asian theater of WWII it’s worth picking up at the library, but you need to have realistic expectations about it.

  14. 14
    Vicki says:

    I am somewhat interested in Asian colonial history so may read this at some point. But thanks for the heads up on the attitudes. Having grown up in a missionary family, I have been exposed to a lot of that sort of attitude and it has bothered me since I was about 10. People are different and we should rejoice in our differences.

    Thanks for the review. I am enjoying this site and have discovered new authors frequently.  And, now, apparently, new cooking icons, too. Thank goodness for google.

  15. 15
    JaniceG says:

    Thanks for the warning about the true story being told in the book.

    As for the cultural bias, it’s always eye-opening when you read contemporaneous material, or material written by people who were shaped by the period. I recently downloaded some public domain “Boys at West Point/Annapolis” books from about 1910 (I’m a sucker for old YA, especially stuff written before WWI). I was startled to discover that the first of the post-graduation books were set in Puerto Rico and Mexico, where the Army and Navy have been sent to quell revolutionary movements by the uppity shifty natives who are not showing proper gratefulness for having been taken over by the US.

  16. 16
    Donna says:

    I watched a presentation by Conant on BookTV/Cspan2 the other day & now understand why that she revealed so much about Paul & Julia, but got all “you’ll have to read the book” coy about Jane. The Childs’ are the hook for the story she really wanted to tell. Too bad, as I think a book about a woman who came up with the idea of printing propoganda on condoms sounds pretty darned interesting.

  17. 17
    Danielle says:

    Fabulous review. Although I know of Julia Child only through Meryl Streep’s charming portrayal of her, the book cover with this seemingly wonderful couple paired with an interesting historical subject would absolutely have drawn me in. So glad I read your thoughtful evaluation first. I may still acquire the book, but thanks to you I can go into the reading forewarned instead of ending up seething with frustration. Much appreciated.

  18. 18
    StaceyIK says:

    Mary Anne Graham said on…
    06.12.11 at 12:50 PM
    Tonight at 8pm on the Food Network, the Competition is Romance Novel Cakes. if you’re familiar w/ the show, you know the cakes are always creative and fun. I can’t wait to see how they do w/romance?  Naked man tittie cakes or all hears and flowers?  Will any bodices rip or will there be any mention of that – hope not…

    I saw the Food Network Challenge Romance Novel Cakes.  Huge disappointment for romance novel fans.  I think only one of the chefs had ever read a romance novel.  No naken man chests, no heaving bossoms, no romantic clinch.  Sigh.  Not much to say about the stories they created either. Sigh, again.  I guess we were lucky they stayed away from all the cliches, but still.  Kind of disappointing, although I loved Brownwyn’s story and her cake.  Someone still should have used the clinch.  I’m just saying….

  19. 19
    StaceyIK says:

    I meant naked man chests.  sorry.

  20. 20
    JamiSings says:

    @AgTigress – Granted, I’m going by what I see check out at the library and what the patrons say. They seem to think Ramsey is some sort of British god of cooking. I think he’s just a pretentious buttmunch with a potty mouth.

    I actually like British cooking way better than French. Give me steak & kidney pie over some hoity-toity thing from Paris any day.

  21. 21
    Lisa says:

    If you’re looking for spy stories, may I suggest:

    Sisterhood of Spies by Elizabeth P. McIntosh
    The Women Who Lived For Danger by Marcus Binney
    – very readable collections – each chapter is a different female WWII spy

    Wish Me Luck – outstanding BBC miniseries about British women parachuted into France (great and well-researched).

  22. 22
    AgTigress says:

    They seem to think Ramsey is some sort of British god of cooking.

    Really?  I have never watched him on TV, but I understand that his style is distinctive.  I have the impression that he is at pains to appear aggressively masculine, no doubt a hangover from his days as a professional footballer.
    The only current British TV chef whom I sincerely admire is Jamie Oliver.  Though often quite irritating to watch, he has a genuine social conscience, and for years now has been trying to educate the less thoughtful members of the public about a healthy diet.  His deliberately demotic style and accent may make one want to hit him, but he does it for the sake of ‘accessibility’, to try to break down any perception that home-cooking is the preserve of the leisured and wealthy.  I think his heart is in the right place.
    There are some other good and quite interesting British TV chefs around:  the most unpretentious is Gary Rhodes, while Delia Smith, now in her 60s, is in some ways the modern Mrs. Beeton, teaching the subject from how-to-boil-an-egg upwards.  Nigella Lawson’s TV career is based much more on her voluptuous beauty than on cooking skills, I think (and it probably helped to be a member of a politically powerful family).  There are lots more:  the French ones (Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux) are probably technically the best cooks, and both are charming in their own way.  But Oliver seems to me to be the one who is trying to improve society, and while that is doomed to failure, I admire him for making the attempt.

  23. 23
    AgTigress says:

    I actually like British cooking way better than French. Give me steak & kidney pie over some hoity-toity thing from Paris any day.

    Well, most ethnic cuisines have their own distinctive strengths and weaknesses.  One does have to be in the right mood for really high-end elaborate French cooking, but ordinary down-to-earth French food, the kind of dishes one gets in ordinary eateries rather than posh restaurants, is usually really excellent.

    I have enjoyed local fare all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and the USA, Canada and Australia, too.  The ultra-pretentious and expensive is best avoided, and is often boringly ‘international’ as well, and of course one should not try to seek out one’s favourite dishes from home when one is abroad:  far too many tourists (especially Brits and Americans) do that, and it is a sure recipe for disappointment.  I have known Brits who ordered prawn curry (a typical ‘Anglo-Indian’ dish) in Egypt.  Mad, plain mad, when they could have been eating delicious local Egyptian dishes.

    The thing to do is always to try the local and regional specialities, even if they include some ingredients that make one nervous.  I can contemplate most ingredients with equanimity;  game, almost any kind of offal (though I dislike sweetbreads), lard and fat pork, mysterious pickles and sauces, and very ‘hot’ chilli-seasoned dishes hold no terrors for me, but I do cringe away from crustacea and have mixed feelings about molluscs.  Even so, I have eaten mussels in Belgium (often) and even the odd prawn (eek!) and other shellfishy stuff in Brittany, because those things are part of the culture of the respective regions.  I draw the line at crab, but only because it makes me ill.  :-)

  24. 24
    Pam G. says:

    I’m also familiar with Elizabeth David and actually picked up a used copy of one of her cookbooks a few years ago, though I can’t recall or look up the title at the moment since I’m at work.  I suspect it’s less cultural than a matter of age that determines which famous cooks one is familiar with.  I was a huge fan of Gourmet Magazine in the 70s & 80s; it was my ticket to armchair travel, the only kind I could afford.  So David, Beard, M.F.K Fisher, Wechsberg, Jacobs, Root, Waters and Pepin were all names I first heard of back then and still recall.

    I’m actually not a big fan of Julia Child.  I vaguely recall that she made a remark once that made her seem like a eugenicist, and I’ve never gotten past that, fair or not.  As too Julia’s cooking skills, my husband’s aunt—a superb cook and a Frenchwoman who turned 90 this month—referred to Madame Icon as being about as authentically French as a “vache espanole.”

  25. 25
    AgTigress says:

    ….my husband’s aunt—a superb cook and a Frenchwoman who turned 90 this month—referred to Madame Icon as being about as authentically French as a “vache espanole.”

    LOL!!  A sharp-tongued lady!

    I think both culture and generation come into play, as they both do in so many contexts (e.g. in archaeology).  I know little or nothing about any icons of American cuisine, regardless of date.  The areas of American culture that are most familiar to me are the popular music of the 1950s-70s, and popular fiction;  even in knitting, which is a subject I know a fair amount about, I had never even heard of (British-born) Elizabeth Zimmerman till a few years ago, when I started to frequent internet knitting/crochet forums.  Her influence was wholly on American knitters.  The gulf between British and US culture can often be wider than one expects, and it is quite independent of the chronological cultural gulf that opens between oneself and younger compatriots as one becomes old.


  26. 26
    Donna says:

    OK, you can stop with the Julia dissing. My older brother and I were devoted viewers as children, drawn in by her enthusiasm & humor in the face of cooking catastrophes.  She is the reason I can boil an egg perfectly, & you’ll pry her “The Way to Cook” out of my cold dead hands.

  27. 27
    CarrieS says:

    @Donna, please settle a family argument for me, quick!  What is the best way to boil an egg????  You have no idea how this simple question has plauged our marriage as my DH insists that I do it wrong.

  28. 28
    AgTigress says:

    CarrieS;  if your husband doesn’t like the way you boil eggs, then delegate the task to him!

    The precise way to boil an egg obviously depends on the way you like the resultant boiled egg to be.  It also depends, naturally, on the size of the egg, which is why simply saying ‘x-minutes for a soft yoke and firm white’ doesn’t work.  And it even depends on the freshness of the egg, though this is not a factor if you bought it in a shop, because you know it isn’t fresh.

    This is why boiling an egg perfectly, getting the precise result you want every time, is not as easy as it might seem.

  29. 29
    CarrieS says:

    @AgTigress – in a related tactic, he can eat the eggs I make but I don’t change how I make them, esp since he has no helpful advice to offer.  He doesn’t like it that even after I rinse the eggs in cold water the peels are hard to remove.

  30. 30
    AgTigress says:

    I don’t change how I make them, esp since he has no helpful advice to offer.

    LOL!  It sounds as though his gripe is really with the sheer eggitude of eggs, rather than the cook’s technique!  :)

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