I think I came across the recommendation for Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews in one of those book lists promoting Russian-themed books, pre-Olympics. And it does not disappoint in its delivery of the Russian experience.
Russian intelligence officer Dominika Egorova, a brilliant, fiery, and gorgeous synesthete, has been trained as the ‘honey trap’ to bait American CIA agent Nate Nash, the handler for a Russian mole. Oh yes, all the double crosses, intrigue, murder, and sex of a spy novel. I have a soft spot in my heart for authors who create such bold, female main characters who embody the lethal combination of strength and weakness that makes them dangerous to cross and even to love. Reading about Dominika’s transformation from a classically trained Russian ballerina and patriot into a killing machine is reason enough to pick up the novel. This is also the first time I’ve encountered a synesthete in literature, and as one who has always been curious as to how it manifests itself in people, Matthews’s use of it in an intelligence context was clever.
Not to say the book was perfect. It could easily have been 100 pages shorter. I am actually surprised how some of the chapters didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. The length drags down the momentum of the book and almost lost me halfway through. Also, the American agent Nate is severely underdeveloped, particularly when partnered with as rich a character as Dominika. She renders him to a state of literary cardboardness–one-dimensional and flat.
An interestingly unique feature of this spy novel is that it features recipes of the dishes the characters eat, at the end of each chapter. Which made me immediately hungry and also curious about some of the Russian dishes I read about. Although I’m not quite sure what impact was supposed to have on the reader (maybe touching on another of the reader’s senses–a stretch of a connection to the synesthete?), I will say I’ve dogeared some of the dishes to try, particularly on a freezing cold, snowy day. In my fur hat. With a shot of vodka. Join me?