During World War II, the SOE (Special Operations Executive), in Great Britain, conducted an experimental clandestine operation. They trained and sent women who could pass for French into France to perform dangerous tasks, transmitting information, acting as couriers and setting explosives. They did this to help prepare for the coming invasion. These young, dedicated female spies were unsung heroes of World War II.
The novel seems very loosely based on the story of Vera Atkins, a woman with a Jewish heritage, from Eastern Europe, who worked for the Director of the SOE. It is about her rise to the powerful position she held and her efforts and those of the courageous women that she recruited and deployed to serve in the war effort. As the story of their betrayal is revealed, their incredible acts of bravery and heroism are illustrated.
If we fast forward into 1946, the war is now over. Grace is a widow. Her husband Tom was killed on his way to New York City, to meet her for a weekend prior to his deployment. She seems to lament the fact that he died in an accident and not during the war, appearing to envy the actual war widows who seem united. When she unexpectedly bumps into her deceased husband’s friend Mark, she spends the night with him, totally against her own code of ethics, and is, as a result, late for work. She works for Frank, an immigration attorney who is dedicated to working for those displaced by the war. She decides to take a shortcut through Grand Central. Before she enters, she is further delayed by a crowd. A woman has been hit by a vehicle and died. As she hurries through the terminal, she notices an abandoned suitcase under a bench. She stops to quickly search for the owner. Not seeing anyone, she looks through the suitcase. She discovers a packet of photos carefully wrapped in lace. (She never thinks that it might belong to the accident victim.) When she is unable to stuff everything back in the same way it had been packed, she grows flustered. She impulsively, and out of character, again, decides to keep the photos. She takes them and hides them in her bag. (She does a lot of things uncharacteristically throughout the novel.) Later in the day, she returns to the terminal hoping to replace the photos in their rightful place, but the suitcase is gone.
Now Grace, faced with the problem of how to find the rightful home for the photos, makes several unsuccessful attempts to find a friend or relative by contacting the authorities, i.e. the police and also the British Consulate, but somehow, when she is unsuccessful, she always feels the photos calling to her, and she refuses to relinquish them to anyone. When she discovers the woman who had died in the accident was the owner of the suitcase, she grows even more interested in their history. She wants to know just who the victim was and what the pictures meant to her, the pictures that she had so lovingly wrapped in a piece of fine lace.
When her husband’s friend Mark suddenly reappears again (one of the many contrived coincidences in the novel), and learns of her efforts, he offers to help her. He suggests that she return with him to Washington DC. How fortunate that he is a lawyer with important contacts who can help her find out more about the woman who owned the suitcase, the woman whose name was Eleanor Trigg. Once again, uncharacteristically, she lies to her boss about what she is doing and travels to DC, to meet Mark. He calls in a favor and they visit the Pentagon where they are secretly led into an area forbidden to them, to look through files. When Grace is startled by the person helping them, and they are told that they have to leave immediately before they are discovered, she again does something that is out of character. She steals one of the files. She learns that each of the dozen girls in the photos had worked for the SOE, and none of them had survived. The accident victim, Eleanor Trigg (the pseudo Vera Atkins), was not a clerk as she had been told by the authorities, but the woman who had been in charge of the entire SOE French operation.
Marie is one of the Englishwomen in the dozen photographs. She had been recruited because of her fluency in French. She had spent her early years in France, with her mother. She spoke French like a native and was well suited to pass as a legitimate Frenchwoman. She left her daughter Tess with relatives, with whom she had already been living. Marie had been abandoned by Tess’s father. Her story is a central part of the novel, but her behavior is often at odds with a well-trained spy. Although she is engaged in espionage of the highest order, she seems woefully naïve.
As Grace attempts to discover who the women in the photos are, and whom she should contact about them, the story develops with some surprises. Romances, car accidents, betrayals and abandonment are recurring themes. The reader is left wondering which part of the story is actually based in fact. If the frivolous romantic episodes were eliminated, the novel might have had a more substantial impact. Although the three women, Eleanor Trigg, Grace and Marie are the central characters in the novel and are the most developed, their story feels very contrived and obvious at times, as it is alternately a romance novel and an espionage mystery, but never seems quite sure which one it wants to be.
Still, it is worthwhile learning about the plight of these women and their acts of heroism. There are non-fiction books about this operation that supposedly do a far better job than this novel. Some of the dialogue and parts of the narrative feel trite and childish. Perhaps it is more suitable as a YA (Young Adult), romance novel with a bit of history thrown into the mix.