Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews

If you are a big John le Carre fan, but have always wished that his books featured more female characters, Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow is the book for you. I, however, am not a le Carre fan, and as far as I'm concerned adding female characters just expands the scope of a fundamentally unpleasant story to include a bunch of new targets.

The central character of Red Sparrow is Dominika Egorova, a lovely young woman whose promising ballet career was derailed by a jealous classmate. When an ambitious relative blackmails Dominika into joining Soviet intelligence services, she ends up at the Sparrow School—a training ground for “sexpionage” agents. Like all Sparrows, Dominika is regarded as disposable, but she is sent to ensnare Nathaniel Nash, a CIA agent who has connections to a suspected Russian mole.

Look, you only get so many feminist points when your idea of a nuanced heroine is an exquisitely gorgeous ex-dancer with synesthesia who is equally gifted at seduction and ass-kicking. That's an anime heroine, not a real girl. And I wasn't impressed by Matthews's celebrated gift for description, either, since I noticed that his male characters, even the throwaway ones, get descriptions like this:
“Volontov was fifty-fife years old, warty and stout, with a silver-gray Soviet pompadour. He had one steel tooth in the back of his mouth, visible only when he smiled, which was never. His suit was dark, baggy, and shiny in places. If modern spies today are made of space-age composites, Volontov was still steel plates and rivets.”
While minor females characters get descriptions like this:
“The latest staff aide, a jumpy, size-fourteen nail-biter named Missy, was sitting at a table covered in papers.”
I am irritated on Missy's behalf, you snide, sizeist asshole, and she's not even real.

To do Matthews justice, his spy craft descriptions seem detailed and legit. But accurately describing the many hideous indignities and assaults facing attractive young women trying to make their way through Soviet intelligence services doesn't make this story any less grueling to read. The opposite is true, and this story's few strengths just mean it's going to take even longer to mercifully fade from my memory.
Posted by: Julianka


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