Our Woman in Moscow: A Novel
Occasionally I come across a book that reminds me of the sheer joy of reading, opens a new world, and warms the heart. Beatrice Williams has done just that in Our Woman in Moscow (Morrow $28. 437pp). I could not wait to get home every evening to dive back into it. Like with War and Peace, I was sad to see it end. By the way, I wasn’t exactly distraught finishing Anna Karenina. Enough about Russian farming and throw yourself under the train, girl.
Williams introduces us to twin sisters who could not be more unalike. Ruth is blonde, tall, outgoing, and a fashion model. Her sister, Iris is artistic, not as pretty, and shy. When they were young, Iris saved Ruth’s life, cementing a bond between them despite their differences. When the book begins, in 1952, it seems strange that for some reason the sisters haven’t spoken to each other in years and Williams teases out the story brilliantly.
Spring 1940 the young women are living in Mussolini’s Rome with their brother who is employed as a junior diplomat at the American embassy. While Ruth does fashion shoots on the Spanish Steps, Iris daily visits the Borghese to stare at Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina on the ground floor, getting an erotic vibe from the piece. She notices a tall blonde-haired man also eyeing the famous sculpture, but he says nothing to her.
Eventually Sasha, also employed at the embassy, introduces himself, but it looks to Iris as if he already has a girlfriend. And this odd, lovely woman will play a big part in later years. Leaving the museum, Iris gets hit by a motorcycle, though Sasha darts in and pulls her out of the street. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you know that this happens to American tourists almost daily. The accident is a life-changing event for both women.
Iris spends a couple of weeks in an Italian hospital (before the days of managed care). Sasha visits every day, bringing flowers, and soon Iris is in love. The lovers keep the secret of their affair away from Iris’ siblings. On a weekend getaway in the country, Iris learns that Sasha is in fact a Soviet agent providing material to the Russians which he has purloined from the embassy.
The book then flips adroitly from 1948 in London where Iris and Sasha live now married and 1952 in New York where Ruth is an executive secretary in a modeling agency. We learn that Sasha and Iris have defected to Russia. Ruth’s life is upended when Iris contacts her about her fourth pregnancy and a handsome FBI agent approaches Ruth about her sister.
Suffice to say the plot is riveting. My only complaint is a small detail involving an 11-year-old girl, whose important actions might have been set up better. But as the father of four daughters, I know they can be rebellious in any culture.
Moscow is an absolute A-plus, every bit as good as the Caz Frear books I reviewed recently. I found it in my local indy bookstore, and I urge you to buy it and support your neighborhood book shop. I must confess—so eager was I to read Williams again, I hit the Amazon button for her last two. Oh well.