As a reader, I’m kind of a sucker.
It’s easy to take me by surprise. I didn’t see any of it coming in Gone Girl. Life of Pi came to me from far out in left field. And I admit it, it never even occurred to me that he would sell his precious pocket watch to buy his wife a beautiful hair pin.
My jaw has hit the floor in shock so many times, I should grow a beard to cover up the bruises.
So the emotional twist at the end of Jennie Rooney’s novel Red Joan struck me to quick completely by surprise. Neither I nor the novel’s heroine had any idea what was coming.
Red Joan is structured in a series of flashbacks, which is what gives the novel its tension. Joan, an elderly English widow, is interrogated by agents of MI-5. She is suspected of spying for the Soviets, passing them secrets about England’s work on the atomic bomb. As she is questioned the novel goes back to Joan’s youth. She did work on the atom bomb, something she never told her son nor anyone else due to the Official Secrets Act. She did travel with communist sympathizers back when Stalin was an ally. She did fall in love with a man who became a Soviet agent and she did become an agent herself.
Red Joan worked for me as a spy thriller, as a character study, as something of a romance and as a portrait of a particular time in England when someone really could believe that giving the Soviets top-secret information was the right thing to do.
And then the ending broke our hearts, Joan’s and mine.