Prince of Spies is a tale of star-crossed lovers with a charming hero and heroine who are a delight to read about. However, it combines that appealing romance with some troublesome plot points which made grading the tale a conundrum for this reviewer.
This is book three of the Hope & Glory trilogy. The backstory from the first two novels plays a large role in this one, so I recommend reading the series in order.
When Luke Delacroix sees a young woman attempting to rescue a dog that has fallen through the ice into the Potomac, he springs into action. Belly crawling his way along the barely frozen river to the struggling pooch he manages to save it - only to fall into the frigid water himself. Fortunately, the young lady who had originally gone after the errant animal is able to help Luke to safety. Once they are back on dry land, she snaps a picture of him, wet and shivering but laughing, holding the equally wet and shivering pup and then takes her nephew and the sopping hound home.
Luke hears the boy call his lovely savior “Aunt Marianne” and since the camera she was holding had a government stamp from the Department of the Interior on it, tracking her down will be easy. And he desperately wants to track her down. It wasn’t just her lovely dark hair, sparkling blue eyes and obvious courage that attracted him.
“She was a complete stranger who didn’t feel like a stranger at all.”
Their shared adventure on the ice had connected them and while
“He’d been in her presence for only a few minutes he already admired her.”
Once Luke is successful in finding her, Marianne proves to be everything he has ever dreamt of in a partner. She’s courageous, funny, playful, earnest, caring, compassionate - the ideal match for his own daring, loving, boisterous personality. But she’s not perfect - and her one imperfection could ruin them both.
It turns out Marianne is the daughter of Congressman Clyde Magruder, with whom Luke has some bad history. The Magruders and Delacroixs, both wealthy families involved in the food industry, once had a joint business venture under the leadership of Clyde and Luke. The Delacroixs procured coffee through their international contacts and the Magruders were responsible for sales and packaging. Only the Magruders didn’t package the coffee that was delivered; they added chicory and a handful of other ingredients to the mix in order to stretch the supply and create a cheaper product with a higher profit ratio. Three people died as a result of the cut corners and Luke has never forgiven himself - or the Magruders - for those deaths. Luke is in Washington D.C. using his position as a journalist to advocate for a bill regulating food and drug standards which will keep events like the above incident from ever happening again.
What makes Luke and Marianne such a charming couple is their complementarian personalities. They both have active, adventurous natures and neither of them would have been happy with someone who didn’t share their passion for daring exploits and boundary pushing. They also have strong moral centers that cause them to actively fight for what they believe in. For Luke, that means throwing himself totally into the battle for ensuring that grocery stores carry only safe, quality food. Not only does he publish articles supporting a pure food and drug act, but he also volunteers for Dr. Harvey Wiley’s Poison Squad studies. This program involved a group of men eating food mixed with various additives and then being monitored so that their physiological responses to them could be recorded. It is these studies that drew national attention to the importance of food safety guidelines.
Marianne plays a crucial role in Luke’s fight for wholesome food and this was one of the things I liked most about the novel - that the couple were genuine partners who helped each other achieve their goals.
Aside from helping Luke, Marianne has her own passion which revolves around reconciliation in her family circle The Magruders are a dysfunctional mess. They are ruthless in their business dealings, regularly adding dangerous additives to the food they manufacture and often taking violent, unethical actions to protect that behavior. They are also viciously cruel to each other: Marianne’s father berates Marianne and her older half-brother Andrew on a regular basis, making it clear that their status in the family is constantly under review and that any misstep could lead to them being ostracized and cut off. This is no idle threat: Marianne’s Aunt Stella chose to marry a man the family didn’t approve of and was thrown out of the house without a dime as a result.
Marianne knows her own position in the Magruder clan is especially precarious because she is the product of one of Clyde’s affairs. Her mother was paid off so that Marianne could be raised by Clyde and his wife. It hurts Marianne that her half-brother Andrew, Clyde’s only child with his wife, and Mrs. Magruder, the woman who raised her and whom she knows and loves as her mother, are distant to her and never take Marianne’s part in family arguments. It also bothers her that her father’s most recent by-blow hasn’t been welcomed into the family fold and doesn’t live with or even visit them.
But you know what bothered me? That the bible is used to defend numerous confusing behaviors. For example, honor your father and mother is translated into maintaining a harmonious relationship with Clyde despite his numerous crimes. I also found the idea that forgiveness for philandering should extend to welcoming the product of affairs into your family deeply disturbing. Even more troubling was the familial abuse. At one point there is a horrible scene where a beloved pet dog is killed as punishment for a child cheating on a test. While the family condemns the father for the behavior, no move is made to remove the child from that environment, something that surely needed to be done. The story also contains a personal pet peeve of mine - the idea of the ‘victimized’ South. In this case, it is implied that the impoverishment incurred by the confederates during the civil war was cruel and unjust and somehow the fault of the Union. Additionally, I felt there was a whiff of judgment towards Marianne’s mother for being willing to give her up for adoption, regardless of the fact that it would have been near impossible for the woman to keep Marianne and continue her career as an opera singer.
If the above aren’t issues for you, you will adore Prince of Spies. The romance between Luke and Marianne is charming and the author does an outstanding job with the history in this book; her depiction of the fight for food safety standards is completely riveting. Also, the prose is lovely, and the characters are wonderfully three dimensional. However, my enjoyment of the tale was dimmed by the above controversies and my grade reflects that.
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