Desert Isle Keeper
The Librarian Spy
Fabulous books are hard to find, books that make you wish to spend more time with the characters and who make you long to find more stories that can do that. The Librarian Spy is just such a book.
It is April of 1943. War encompasses the world and Washington D.C. is a city of frantic energy, with all its denizens caught up in the battle to defeat Hitler – with the exception of Ava Harper who works in the sedate Rare Book Room at the Library of Congress. She loves her job and can’t ever imagine leaving it, but then she receives an unusual offer from the OSS: A chance to make a significant difference in the war by using her fluency in German and French in Lisbon. She will be microfilming periodicals that land in that metropolis from all over Europe, as well as checking the bookstores for any information regarding the Axis forces that can be obtained from volumes sold by the myriad of refugees that pour into the city on a daily basis. In spite of her fear of flying, she boards a plane within a week, determined to do her part to bring American soldiers home – especially her beloved brother.
Meanwhile in Lyon, a woman frantically searches for her husband. Hélène Bélanger’s fight with her beloved Joseph had been laden with vitriol, a by-product of the stress induced by the occupation of France. Hélène wants to join the resistance and fight for freedom; Joseph, a pacifist due to his experiences in WWI, wants her to stay calm and carry on. When he fails to come home that first night after their argument, she assumes he stayed at his friend Etienne’s apartment to give them both time to let their anger cool. But the longer Joseph is gone the more Hélène worries. Then a strange woman shows up at her doorstep, looking for a man named Pierre. Her arrival sets a chain of events in motion which lead to Hélène becoming Elaine Rousseau, a freedom fighter who mans a printing press for the members of the Resistance.
These two women are hundreds of miles apart, occupying two very different worlds. But when Ava begins to acquire copies of Combat, the paper Elaine publishes, they connect through coded messages, united in their desire to bring an end to the fighting and save as many lives as they can.
Immediately upon finishing this book, I searched for a copy of the author’s first WWII novel, The Last Bookshop in London, because this story is just so spectacular that I wanted to get a hold of anything similar the author has written. It’s hard to do anything besides gush when you read a book this good but I’ll try to explain what makes The Librarian Spy such a great read.
I loved both heroines. Elaine and Ava lead quiet, normal book-centric lives prior to the war but they rise to the occasion when called upon to do so. Elaine is racked with guilt for fighting with Joseph over his pacifism before he disappears from her life (all is explained but I’ll let readers discover that for themselves) and I found her despair both touching and realistic. Anyone who is married or in a long-term relationship knows that it is easy to let words get away from us and to wound those we least want to hurt. Elaine, with the help of Etienne, channels that experience into her fight with the enemy. The realistic, historically accurate accounts of what that battle looked like, the deprivations and persecution suffered during the occupation, and the emotional toll that doing this work caused are deeply moving. The author strikes that just right balance of giving sufficient detail to let the reader know what the people of France suffered through without being needlessly graphic.
Ava is an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I liked that she isn’t a bold or adventurous person, but she moves across the world to do a dangerous job when it is asked of her. Ava is tenacious, with quiet courage and inner strength; she doesn’t back down from the opposition when she feels she is in the right and she has a strong moral code that ensures she almost always is. She’s also intelligent and resourceful. Technically Ava is a spy, and although her work involves simply gathering newspapers (those sold openly and some clandestine publications), it still has an element of danger to it. The Germans are as active in neutral Portugal as the Allies are, and the Nazis have a good relationship with the police in Lisbon. People get arrested for any kind of espionage activities, and on her first day in the area, Ava attracts the attention of a German operative. British agent James Mackinnon happens to be in the vicinity when that occurs and is able to warn Ava about the situation. He grows from ally to friend to more as the story progresses.
The heroes both keep deep, deadly secrets from their heroines that endanger them. James especially does something that surprised me – it seemed particularly underhanded, although I understood the necessity of it. I thought the author does a great job of explaining why they made the decisions they make and she convinced me they were acting with the best of intentions. Something I liked about both James and Joseph is that they’re brave without bravado; they do their work mostly in secret, happy to be rewarded by success rather than loud acknowledgment. They are also steady, dependable, and honorable. We learn of Joseph mostly through third-person accounts – he isn’t present in the story but what we see of him through those folks’ eyes endears him to us.
James and Ava have a very low-key romance and when the story ends they are taking definitive steps towards a future together, although they aren’t engaged or married. That seemed appropriate to me – their demanding work and the nature of the world they are inhabiting means that they really aren’t in a position to make quick decisions on important issues. Both of them are also very cautious people; it seemed natural to me that they would want to make sure theirs wasn’t just a wartime romance but something that would work in peacetime as well.
The setting here is fabulously handled and I learned so much, not just about Lisbon but about the time period and what ‘neutral’ countries actually looked like, especially how things worked for refugees. I would encourage you to read the author’s note to get a glimpse of the research Ms. Martin did that makes this text so deeply immersed in the time and place in which it happens.
The Librarian Spy is simply a terrific read. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys tales set in this time period.
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I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.