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!