Desert Isle Keeper
Aster Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap is a compelling and unique story that charts the development of the unlikely relationship between an American FBI agent and a lieutenant in the Red Army (and possible KGB agent) over a period of around thirty-five years. It’s extremely well-written, and the author does an amazing job of exploring the cultural and ideological differences between the societies in which the two men live in a way that is thought-provoking without being preachy or didactic. The leads are multi-faceted, flawed but likeable men, and their romance is a very slow burn that evolves organically from the tentative and then genuine friendship that grows between them; it’s quietly understated yet full of longing and boasts some truly beautiful moments of poignancy and real, complex emotion.
It’s 1959, and FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne Is assigned to investigate what is believed to have been an attempt to assassinate Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev while he was on a recent visit to the US. Daniel is going to be temporarily partnered with Lieutenant Gennady Matskevitch in order to diffuse the tensions over Russian accusations of a cover up. Daniel’s boss tells him to befriend Matskevitch and to show him America in the best possible light during their travels.
Matskevitch is given official instructions to keep an eye on his American partner and use his assignment as a way to gather intelligence about American investigative methods. Unofficially, however, he’s told to honeytrap the American agent in order to gather blackmail material.
Thus begins a months-long road-trip through small towns and large cities, from rural to industrial America, during which Daniel and Gennady go from initial suspicion to a tentative friendship which gradually turns into something more, something that will endure for over three decades and will survive long separations, betrayal, political upheaval, marriage, divorce and family tragedy.
In 1959, Daniel is twenty-seven, and Gennady twenty-four, and the only thing they really have in common – of which they are of course totally unaware at the beginning – is that they exist in a world that holds strict views as to what a man should be and who he should love. Otherwise, the gulf between them is huge; their countries are enemies and they’ve been instructed to spy on one another, so the idea there could be any real trust or friendship between them is a non-starter. It would do neither of them any good and can go nowhere; and it could actually be dangerous both professionally and personally.
But after spending months together on the road and in cramped motel rooms, learning things about each other and bantering about the advantages and flaws of their respective countries, it’s impossible to keep their distance from each other, and although they both know it’s a bad – probably disastrous – idea, they fall into a warm and affectionate friendship. From that friendship emerges a strong and genuine attraction that neither man really knows what to do with; Daniel knows he’s attracted to men as well as women (he had a sexual relationship with his previous work-partner, which is how he ended up being given the sort of assignment usually given to a ‘problem’ agent) while for Gennady, fooling around with men is something that has happened rarely and only while drunk. The way they fall for each other is gorgeous and incredibly sweet, the UST is delicious and the author has created a real, deep emotional connection between them, a romance that doesn’t rely on the grand gesture but which is instead built on a foundation of lots of little ones, small moments and actions that show the depth of their feelings for one another.
The story is split into three sections; the first is the longest, taking up around two-thirds of the book, and it’s where the relationship and romantic development takes place. Of course, given the time period and the serious external obstacles to any relationship between Daniel and Gennady, a convincing HEA (or HFN) is difficult to achieve and the author wisely opts not to try to contort reality or the personalities she has established for her characters in order to make one. After they part in 1960, they don’t meet again until 1975, when Gennady is sent to Washington D.C on a two year posting. Life has changed for both of them, but is no less complicated.
Daniel is married with two young children by this point, (Gennady is also married, and on the verge of divorce) and Daniel’s wife, an artist, is fully aware of his bisexuality and the nature of his relationship with Gennady, and encourages their affair – which I admit I found a bit unrealistic and overly convenient.
Their feelings for each other are as real and strong as ever, but they both know Gennady’s time in the US is finite, which makes their reunion, wonderful as it is, rather bittersweet.
The final section, set in 1992 after Glasnost and the splitting up of the Soviet Union, is squashed into the final ten percent of the book and is rushed. It feels almost like an afterthought rather than an epilogue; there is an HEA/HFN, but it’s left right to the last minute so there’s no time for it to fully sink in before the book ends.
That – and the unrealistic element I mentioned under the spoiler bar – are the reasons this book isn’t a flat-out A; but it deserves the highest praise for its characterisation and relationship and character development. Daniel and Gennady are superbly drawn, fully-rounded characters it’s easy to like and root for and their romance is – for the most part – beautifully done. Daniel is genuine and warm-hearted, a bit idealistic and a romantic at heart, while Gennady is possessed of a quick, dry wit, and his enthusiasm for American experiences and fascination with everything new he learns is infectious and totally endearing. Their discussions about the differences between the US and the USSR are clever and insightful (and often dryly funny); Gennady’s reactions to Americanism and capitalism are interesting, and even though we never see him at home in the USSR, the author does convey a strong sense of what his life there is like.
Honeytrap is a clever, engrossing read that’s unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s not perfect – the pacing is uneven and the time jumps are a bit hard to adjust to – but it’s still one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’ll certainly be looking for more from this author.