When the Bullet Hits the Bone

If you’ve never watched The Americans, I suggest you drop everything and go watch the first few episodes ASAP. When I tell you to stop reading my blog to go do something, you know it must be a pretty big deal. I started watching the show over a year ago after some friends recommended it — though it came with a warning that it can get pretty gruesome. (I can confirm: The warning was warranted.)

The show follows Cold War Russian spies living as normal U.S. citizens in the DC metro area. Now, I’ve never been a huge spy fan when it comes to books, movies, or TV. There are no hard feelings; the genre and themes just never did much for me. But The Americans. GAH it is so good. It has history, psychology, action, sociology, politics, family, fear, love, and so. much. more. It ranks at the top of TV for me. Yes, it even rises above One Tree Hill.

I told BLL fave, Dana, to watch it, and she and her husband agreed that the show kicks total ass. It even sparked some Russian fascination in us both. Seriously, our society teaches us only to fear and despise Russian with little context; I want to know why. Therefore, Dana recommended I read Red Sparrow, which also focuses on Russian spies. I provide all this context for a reason. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Our personal lives and where we are on any given day affect our experiences with books. I have an inkling that my obsession with The Americans and learning more about the Cold War may have influenced my opinion of Red Sparrow. Had I read the book before watching the show, I may have opined a bit differently.

We were taught that the Cold War ended in the early 90s, but Red Sparrow teaches us that the spying, the criminality, and the drama are still going strong. Dominika Egorova has spent her life training and dreaming of being a prima ballerina. And with her strong love and devotion for her mother country — despite her parents’ secret reservations — she can think of no better way to serve her country than to dance for it. But when a rival classmate conspires to cause her a career-ending injury, she must return home and start over.

Starting over doesn’t mean having options, though, and her uncle forces her to become a “sparrow,” a trained seductress in the post-Soviet world. She quickly learns the techniques of sexpionage despite how despicable she finds the practice. After successfully compromising a Frenchman, she is tasked to seduce CIA intelligence officer Nathaniel Nash who handles a Russian mole. Ousting the mole by compromising Nash would be life-changing for Dominika and game-changing for her country.

She travels to Helsinki where he’s since been stationed, and the two soon form a relationship. Once Dominika learns more of the Russian agency’s deception and how little it cares about human life — including its own people’s — she starts questioning her allegiance to the country she devoutly loves; simultaneously, she develops feelings for the man she’s supposed to seduce — feelings that are reciprocated. Their affair will complicate the game by putting more at stake as different allegiances are made and many lives remain on the line.

“I want to feel that sometimes we leave the operation behind, that there is just you and me”

Red Sparrow

It’s worth noting that my summary of the book — and really most descriptions of it — has more intensity and action than the majority of the actual novel. Don’t get me wrong: The second half is filled with such sharp sexual and dangerous tension that it’s palpable in most chapters, but the beginning moves too slowly. While I desperately wanted to believe this book was four flames — mainly because of the core content — that second half just couldn’t fully make up for Red Sparrow‘s slow beginning.

Ironically, the parts that I feel are slow have been praised by many because of the level of knowledge and detail with which author Jason Matthews writes. As a former CIA agent, Matthews provides exceptional detail about a CIA operation, and I appreciate his expertise. Yet … it bored me. The book has a lot of spy and agency acronyms and terminology that distracted me and slowed down the novel. I didn’t necessarily care about the different groups or terms. I wanted more from the plot.

I provide a lot of context in this post’s intro because I firmly believe my obsession with The Americans may have affected my overall opinion of Red Sparrow. Not only did I have extremely high expectations for a book with themes that matched my favorite show, but that very show was also packed with action in every single episode. I anticipated the same for Red Sparrow.

Once I got past the book’s jargon and technicalities, though, it did pick up. I especially enjoyed reading about the constant internal turmoil the characters faced, which was also my favorite part of The Americans. All of these characters — both American and Russian — have tasks with which they don’t necessarily feel comfortable; they question the morality and leadership of their own agencies; and they struggle to compartmentalize their feelings for other characters. Matthews wasn’t the best at illustrating the inner conflict they all felt, but I understood it enough to be totally intrigued by their decision-making.

I also didn’t trust any of the characters, which is fun for a reader. I never knew what they valued most: personal connections, their country, or their integrity. And I loved not being able to predict where the plot and characters would take me. This feeling lasts to the very end with a twist that you think you expect but can’t be too sure.

The best part is that the action-packed ending leads right into a sequel that I know will start off with a bang. (Pun intended? Maybe. Maybe not.) My only wish for the first book in the series was that there was a little more spy action and a little less spy jargon. But that won’t deter me from reading book two, which I have a feeling will live up to my high expectations.


3 thoughts on “When the Bullet Hits the Bone

  1. This sounds so similar to Cover Affairs, the television show, except she’s an American operative. I honestly did not know Red Sparrow was a book but, now that I do, I’ll have to check it out. Fortunately, I haven’t seen the movie yet so.. should be interesting!
    Fantastic review and thank you so much for sharing it!


  2. Pingback: The Art of Starting Over | Big Little Literature

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