The idea to review Susan Isaacs’ Shining Through came to me after some people mentioned it fondly on the Reader to Reader Message Board. As a fan of World War II-era fiction, I was thrilled when my editors gave me the go-ahead, even though the book first came out more than a decade ago in 1988. All I’d known about its plot could be summed up by my vague memories of the movie version, but the book turned out to be almost completely different. Isaacs’ humor, wit, and characterization are simply inimitable.
America is in the brink of war, and Linda Voss, legal secretary, is riveted to news about the alarming Nazi aggression in Europe. Descended from German-Jew immigrants, she’s bursting with political commentary but has no one to tell it to: her colleagues are more interested in office gossip than the impact of Winston Churchill’s speeches. But Linda is more conventional than she lets on, for she has a crush on her boss, John Berringer. The problem is that they’re worlds apart, and, by the way, he’s already married.
Proficient in German, Linda is later tasked to translate letters for Edward Leland, one of the senior partners and John’s powerful father-in-law. Since Edward dictates such peculiarly innocuous messages as “I spent the month of August sailing with my three sons,” she figures out that they’re in code, and that he’s involved in undercover operations for the OSS. Because of her outspoken views, Linda builds a strange rapport with Edward, who’s earned his notoriously intimidating image through a combination of wealth and combat heroism.
When a crucially-placed OSS operative is killed in the line of duty, Linda is suddenly given the opportunity to volunteer to take his place. Disobeying Edward, she applies for the position, undergoes training, and makes the realistically improbable but fictionally provocative leap from secretary to spy. Her German accent and intimate knowledge of Berlin aid her in posing as a cook in the household of a high-ranking Nazi official. It is only when the mission goes awry that Linda will discover the depth of her beliefs. In her desperate attempt to escape, she begins to realize whom she’s loved all along.
Isaacs is one of those rare authors who manage to tell a fast-paced story that also makes you think. This book is readable and funny, but you always get the sense that it’s anything but light. The characters’ earthy personal lives and the sly twists in the tale combine to mirror real life, with all its inevitable tragedies, unglamorous details, and grim – some would even say macabre – humor. The heroine’s relationship with her mother is especially poignant.
The story is told in the first person, from Linda’s perspective, and her matter-of-fact intelligence shines through. She stands up for her principles at a time when women are expected to defer to their male superiors. Few people could be so level-headed in crisis situations, but she manages just that – and helps save others’ lives as well. Sounds perfect? Linda isn’t flawless; she’s neither beautiful nor remotely sophisticated, and in fact she is painfully aware of her gaucheness as she enters high society at some point in the book. Her various misfortunes, and her responses to them, endear her to you as someone you’d enjoy befriending in real life.
Shining Through is a love story, but it is definitely not a romance. The circumstances surrounding Linda’s relationship with the man she ends up with are less than ideal, and for the most part it’s not the focus of the story. It was certainly embellished in the movie version, as were other aspects of the book (such as Linda’s agenda in Berlin and the conclusion to her escape attempt). Incidentally, the latter incident seems overblown in the movie, compared to what really happened as Isaacs wrote it.
Nonetheless, the book has a charm and drama of its own; it’s refreshing if you’re in the mood for an adventure in espionage, a cheeky heroine, and a surprising development or two. I must admit though that I was too traumatized by certain events in Linda’s personal life that I peeked ahead for that ultimate security blanket: the HEA! I won’t say what I discovered (remember, the movie is very different), but it’s an immensely likable book overall. The various commendations for this book on our message board are right on the money.