From the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Bookshop in London comes a moving new novel inspired by the true history of America’s library spies of World War II.
Ava thought her job as a librarian at the Library of Congress would mean a quiet, routine existence. But an unexpected offer from the US military has brought her to Lisbon with a new mission: posing as a librarian while working undercover as a spy gathering intelligence.
Meanwhile, in occupied France, Elaine has begun an apprenticeship at a printing press run by members of the Resistance. It’s a job usually reserved for men, but in the war, those rules have been forgotten. Yet she knows that the Nazis are searching for the press and its printer in order to silence them.
As the battle in Europe rages, Ava and Elaine find themselves connecting through coded messages and discovering hope in the face of war.
Ava is a librarian in the United States. She enjoys her work with the Library of Congress, so it’s with no little trepidation that she accepts an offer to work undercover gathering intelligence in Lisbon. Her job will be to collect documents, mostly official and unofficial newspapers, and microfilm them so they can be sent back to the States.
Elaine, when first we meet her in occupied Lyon, France, is Hélène Bélanger. To protect a Jewish woman, Hélène gives away her own identity papers. A friend in the French Resistance provides her with new papers, and Elaine Rousseau, underground newspaper printer, is born. The Resistance is able to make good use of her printing press experience, and she works to get important information out to the French people.
Elaine’s story line has more tension and anxiety, as she is constantly at risk of discovery by Nazi forces. Ava’s story has its own moments of intrigue and fear, though, and both women show courage in their own way. Both also had some moments where I just wanted to shout at the book and ask them what they were thinking, but perhaps bravery looks like taking a risk for a good cause that other people simply can’t understand. And when we finally see how their paths cross late-ish in the book, the risks they’ve taken seem a lot more understandable.
Martin has obviously done a great deal of research and put a lot of care into her character development. Descriptions of Nazi torture are minimal, but effectively gruesome. The suspense and underlying threat of discovery pulled me deeper into the story. Some of the characters’ circumstances, like that of Otto, are heart-wrenching and bring to vivid life stories that you might read in the history books. I particularly enjoyed the epilogue – I enjoy hearing about “the rest of the story!”
The one thing sticking in my craw is that, to my reading, neither of the women was the “librarian spy” of the title. Ava was a librarian, and she was gathering information for the war effort back home, but what she was doing didn’t strike me as espionage. And Elaine, while invaluable to the French Resistance and definitely operating undercover, wasn’t a spy, either. There IS a character that is a spy and that is ostensibly a librarian. Who? I’ll let you read and discover that for yourself. But since it was neither Ava nor Elaine, the title feels a little misleading.
Overall, The Librarian Spy is a beautifully written, well-researched work of historical fiction that enlightened me about the important role of librarians during World War II. Ultimately it’s a tale about the power of words and their ability to bring hope even to the darkest hour. Four stars from me.
Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy from the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions here are mine, and I don’t say nice things about books I don’t actually like.
About the author:
Madeline Martin is a New York Times and international bestselling author of historical fiction novels and historical romance. She lives in sunny Florida with her two daughters, two incredibly spoiled cats and a husband so wonderful he’s been dubbed Mr. Awesome. She is a die-hard history lover who will happily lose herself in research any day. When she’s not writing, researching or ‘moming’, you can find her spending time with her family at Disney or sneaking a couple spoonfuls of Nutella while laughing over cat videos. She also loves travel, attributing her fascination with history to having spent most of her childhood as an Army brat in Germany.