Recommendations for good reading often come from unexpected sources. A few years ago I went to a bookstore for an evening of discussion about Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book I hated and found trite but was curious to see why it appealed to other people. Only two people turned up—me and one other lady. Even the speaker was AWOL. The evening was salvaged however when the other attendee and I had a cup of tea together and traded titles of great books we’d enjoyed recently. She wanted the names of some Canadian authors, which I was happy to provide, and one of the books she recommended to me was Wild Swans by Jung Chang which I absolutely loved. It’s the story of three generations of women living three very different lives in twentieth century China.
A couple of weeks ago while sitting with foils on my hair at the hairdresser, the lady in the next chair started chatting to me about books and before you could say, “have you read?. . .” we were madly exchanging titles. When I mentioned I like historical fiction and really enjoy stories about Russia, she recommended The Charm School by Nelson DeMille. And, boy was she right. I couldn’t put it down.
The story is set in 1988 Russia while the Cold War was still flourishing. An American tourist gets lost in an isolated, restricted forest area outside Moscow and is confronted by a rogue American who claims to be one of hundreds of American prisoners of war kidnapped at the end of the war in Vietnam and traded by the North Vietnamese to Russia in exchange for missiles.
The plot follows American Embassy staffers Colonel Sam Hollis, Lisa Rhodes and other agents as they attempt to verify the escapee’s story that the POWs have been imprisoned for more than two decades at a special high-security facility affectionately referred by the prisoners as Mrs. Ivanoff’s Charm School. The American captives are forced to train Soviet agents in how to become American in their speech, dress, demeanor and social habits. When the Russians are fully trained to be indistinguishable from real Americans, they are deployed to the United States as agents assigned to infiltrate and assimilate into sensitive areas of American business, the military and government where they will relay intelligence back to Moscow. This book was written pre-911 and its message is eerily prophetic.
The Charm School is fast-moving, never dull and follows the efforts of the embassy team to verify the story, locate the school and perhaps finally free the captive American POWs, who are now middle-aged. Espionage is always clouded by an overlaying lack of trust of anyone within the circle of characters. This is further complicated by the everyday difficulties associated with simply speaking, traveling, socializing or trying to work under the watchful and paranoid eye of the KGB. This book will appeal to men and women alike, and as I said, I couldn’t put it down. But, if you’re ever in Russia, don’t go off-roading.
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