Once a Spy
Once a Spy is the fourth and final installment in Mary Jo Putney’s Rogues Redeemed series. It’s a mixed bag of lovely romance, questionable circumstances, interesting war story, and unbelievable outcomes. In the end, I was entertained but it left me scratching my head a few times.
British intelligence officer Simon Duval has just resigned following Napoleon’s exile to Elba. He is tired of war and loss (including his fiancée) and ready to have a normal, quiet life. He hears that his cousin’s widow Suzanne Duval, the Comtesse de Chambron – whom he remembers fondly as a young bride – may be alive and living in London. He finds Suzanne living in reduced circumstances as a seamstress.
Suzanne is surprised to see Simon after all these years. Life has been hard on Suzanne – first as the child bride of a self-centered French aristocrat, then as a slave in a harem (recently rescued as part of book three in the series). She and Simon pick up where they left off years ago with an easy friendship and Simon, quite out of the blue, proposes marriage. They are both done with romantic love but would like a bond of companionship (and Suzanne would like the financial freedom the marriage would offer her). They agree to a marriage of friendship, with no romantic or sexual involvement.
“I’ve always felt easy with you even when we were both very young and you were on the way to the altar with another. I feel easy with you now despite the strangeness of this conversation. Do you feel that way, or is it just me?”
“I’ve felt much the same,” she said slowly. “As if we were natural friends. In the years since, we’ve both lived complicated loves. There is ease in not having to pretend to be normal.”
After a brief honeymoon, rumors of Napoleon’s plans to escape Elba reach London and Simon is called upon to use his skills to see what can be learned of these plans. He and Suzanne travel to France to see what has happened to her former husband’s estate, to look for a cousin of Simon’s recently seen in Belgium and previously thought dead in the war, and to do a little sleuthing.
At 384 pages, Once a Spy is a long saga with lots of subplots. The central story between Simon and Suzanne is a sweet love story. Simon awakens to his carnal desires soon after marrying, but Suzanne is understandably hesitant to engage in relations with any man. If you can suspend a little belief here about how a woman recovers from the tortures of living in a harem, Simon and Suzanne’s romantic path is tender and engaging. I especially appreciated how completely honest they were about everything they thought and felt. Ms. Putney writes a lovely romance built on kindness, patience, and frankness, with the lust coming after the trust and love.
A major plot point in Once a Spy is the Battle of Waterloo and the days leading up to it. I enjoyed this part of the book as Ms. Putney paints a very vivid picture of what life was like for those living in the Low Countries at the time. Napoleon’s devastation to this area and most of France is shown very clearly and the reader is fully immersed in the fear and wonder of the time. Ms. Putney builds up the tension leading to the battle and I raced through those pages!
If the novel had kept its focus on Suzanne and Simon and their efforts in Belgium and France, I would have been more than satisfied. I was happy with the trajectory of the story up to the halfway point, but then Ms. Putney started adding in too many happy circumstances and unbelievable plot turns and I ended up feeling like a really good story had been hijacked. There were also a few things that should have been caught in editing or proofing – like Suzanne writing late in the book that she would have loved to have seen Simon just once in his uniform, even though he wore his uniform to their wedding.
So, it’s a mixed bag! Overall, I did enjoy reading Once a Spy but I had to suspend my belief and judgment along the way. It reminded me of romances from a decade or two ago – which is a hard sell nowadays. I’m giving Once a Spy a qualified recommendation because the love story is strong, and even though I had trouble with some of the lucky outcomes at the end, maybe not everyone will.