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American Spy

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What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love? One woman struggles to choose between her honor and her heart in this enthralling espionage drama that deftly hops between New York and West Africa.

It's 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She's brilliant, but she's also a young black woman working in an old boys' club. Her career has stalled out, she's overlooked for every high-profile squad, and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. So when she's given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic, revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Thomas is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving over the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. Yes, even though a furious part of her suspects she's being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent.

In the year that follows, Marie will observe Thomas, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.

Inspired by true events -- Thomas Sankara is known as “Africa's Che Guevara” -- this novel knits together a gripping spy thriller, a heartbreaking family drama, and a passionate romance. This is a face of the Cold War you've never seen before, and it introduces a powerful new literary voice.

292 pages, Hardcover

First published February 12, 2019

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About the author

Lauren Wilkinson

3 books683 followers
Lauren Wilkinson earned an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University, and has taught writing at Columbia and the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was a 2013 Center for Fiction Emerging Writer’s Fellow, and has also received support from the MacDowell Colony and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Lauren grew up in New York and lives on the Lower East Side. American Spy is her first novel.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,256 reviews
Profile Image for Sydney.
353 reviews13 followers
February 20, 2019
This book felt like a missed opportunity. It was such an interesting premise, I went into it with high hopes. Then it committed the fatal error of being boring. The framework of the book--the way the narrator is telling the story in a journal for her sons--didn't work for me. The writing style ended up being far too reflective, with not enough immediacy. I just felt like there was far too much telling and way too little in the way of showing. Plus there were lots of details in the plot that I felt were insufficiently explained or just made no sense. Our main character is supposed to be brilliant--so why could I see things coming from a mile away when she couldn't? Seriously, we are given no evidence in this story to justify her supposed brilliance. Anyway, I give it two stars because at least I felt compelled to finish it.
Profile Image for Read By RodKelly.
205 reviews757 followers
March 14, 2019
Solid 3.5

There are great things here: a complex protagonist who's a black FBI agent embroiled in a case that becomes more dangerous and violent as time passes. The author explores how sexism affects the main character her at the work place, and also delves into the complicated experience she had growing without her mother, to name a couple of the major themes in this novel.

But overall, the novel suffers from lack of narrative momentum. It's slow going and ineffective at keeping up the suspenseful atmosphere it captures so well at the beginning.
Profile Image for Bri.
Author 1 book178 followers
June 20, 2020
Ah, where to even start with this book? With an intriguing and original subject, American Spy examines the life of a Black woman spy from the US who’s sent to essentially ruin the government of Burkina Faso during the Cold War. The perfect opportunity to delve into imperialism, anti-Blackness, and Black American identity during the 80s....YET!

Lots of people who gave this book not-so-good reviews were put off by the narrative style, which I thought was original and interesting. I loved that the novel is a love letter to Marie’s sons, whom she may not see grow up if the US govt catches her.

My biggest issue with this book is that there are no strong opinions about anything. I suppose it’s the nature of a spy to be facetious and have no integrity, but I couldn’t get down with Marie AT ALL. I found her naive about the role of the FBI and CIA in destroying governments and ending lives abroad...like...what did you think they’ve been doing this whole time? Girl! That’s the whole reason why you work for the FBI!

All Marie will definitively say about her political ideology is that she is anti-communist. She uses this to justify both murders of Black Panther party members by her employer AND the infiltration of BF’s government. Yet she looks down on the people she pays to “snitch” on these anti-imperialist movements. Oh jeez.

BUT THEN! Maria falls in love with the “authoritarian dictator” of Burkina Faso (in a swift week) and, upon being instructed to seduce and destroy him, refuses to do so and now hates imperialism. She wants her sons to “love fiercely and freely,” which allegedly what being a good American is all about!

I thought the most promising part of this book, which Wilkinson miserably failed to flesh out in a satisfying way, is the relationship between Marie and her sister, Helene. After all, that’s why Marie became a spy. Though I suspect neither of these women ever had an idea what being a spy for the US govt would entail, instead preferring to believe a childhood fantasy.

This book had such a great premise, and the writing is engaging, but I...wanted more. What *actually* happened to Helene?
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,339 reviews699 followers
February 22, 2023
I listened to the Audible narration of “American Spy”, written by Lauren Wilkinson and narrated by Bahni Turpin. Turpin’s performance is excellent providing a wide range of voices and accents.

This is a spy thriller combined with a bit of historical fiction. The narrator of the story, Marie Mitchell is telling her story for her twin boys. As the story opens, Marie narrowly escapes an assassin’s bullet while her four-year-old boys are sleeping. She flees to Martinique with her sons, where her mother lives. Marie is a spy with ties to the FBI and CIA. She is penning a letter to her boys, explaining her life and how she got there, in the event that she dies before they are old enough for her to explain her life. Also, she adds snippets of wisdom and hope for their future.

The story alternates between now (1992) and her upbringing in Queens (1960’s) and her work for the FBI (1980’s). She was raised by her father in NYC. He was a police officer and raised her to be no-nonsense yet wary. Her work with the FBI was fraught with sexism and frustration. She was good enough to recruit for the FBI, but the good ‘ole boys wouldn’t provide meaty assignments.

Enter the CIA and a chance to do some undercover work. She’s to get close to Thomas Sankara(a real President of the Burkina Faso) so that the USA government can interfere with that nation’s politics.

Her story is interesting, full of the complexities of being a spy. It’s a family story, explaining to her son’s her atypical family dynamics. What separates this spy/suspense story is the perspective of race and gender in the spy world. It’s a solid debut novel.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
August 11, 2019
This is the last of the Camp TOB books for the Tournament of Books and I thought it was pretty good. It is largely set in Burkina Faso and Martinique, two countries I have not yet had the chance to read books from, and I always enjoy learning more about places. Despite the alternating time periods and the fact that it is a spy novel, it's a pretty slow burn. I set it aside a few times to read other things but was ultimately glad I came back to it. And I loved the ending.

ETA a few quotations:

"I can't run the risk of caring too deeply about too many people. The result is that I've never had very many close friends, but have always excelled at being an acquaintance."

"He laughed. 'I don't like to say what I've read. That's how you disclose the most about yourself. I never make notes in a book or underline passages either. That's even more revealing.'"

"You don't owe them anything. You give them what you want to give them. But it's easier if they think you're one of them. It's easier to work from the inside. That's what I try to do. I've been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember."

2nd ETA: Thanks to Amy B. for sending me your copy. Watch for a shoutout on the podcast. ;)
Profile Image for Books on Stereo.
1,268 reviews176 followers
February 24, 2019
A mid-tier spy narrative that quickly loses steam after its neck-breaking opening sequence.
Profile Image for Nicole O.
62 reviews20 followers
January 15, 2019
I was initially drawn to this book due to its unique plot and strong female protagonist. It's a fictional story rooted in historical truths, and so I figured this book had great potential (similar to what Marlon James did with A Brief History of Seven Killings).

Unfortunately, this novel fell short for me. The story is told both in flashbacks and to her sons in the form of a letter/journal, which presents the author the opportunity to really delve into the character development. Instead - at the the end of the book, rather than wondering what the future holds for each of the people introduced within its pages, I was left wanting to know more about the inner workings of each of the characters. So much more could have been done when it came to fleshing out the backgrounds of Marie's sister, mother, and lovers.

Overall, the strengths in this book lie at the core of the story being told, especially from the perspective of a black woman in a male dominated field during an era of grave social injustices and civil unrest. However, this book could have and should have been a lot longer, if only to give the author a chance to flesh out the characters and let their stories be told. I'm especially upset at the way the novel ended. I understand that at times authors want to leave their readers wanting more, but it was so anti-climactic that I almost wanted to throw my kindle at the wall.

Regardless, I recognize that this is a debut novel, and despite my gripes with this book, I'm looking forward to seeing what else this author has in store.
Profile Image for Shawna.
786 reviews18 followers
November 26, 2018
DNF - 1/3 of the way through. I really wanted to like this book, I just couldn't read it.

Thank you to Edel Weiss for the advanced copy.

I now notice that all of the other reviews are just a summary of the story line, and not about the actual book itself. I appreciate that the author was trying to do something different - she is using a narration where the protagonist is telling a story to her twin boys. The problems come in when the story will go on for a few pages, and she is talking to people in one story line, then just randomly uses words like "you" to talk to her children, while she is in the middle of talking in the past to another person. I was constantly confused as to if we were in the story, or if she was talking to her children. She would interchangeably talk about characters referencing them in different ways - Grandma, mom, her real name, it was just a mess.

It is possible that there is some distinction (page breaks, different font, something) in the physical book that is not there in the ARC. I hope so. The story line sounded great, I think it would have been awesome if she would have just told the story, and left out the first 20 pages, and the back and forth timeline.
Profile Image for Kay.
220 reviews
April 25, 2019
I feel like I was sold a 6 for a 9. This book has been marketed as a thriller/mystery. It's not. It's closer to historical fiction and I definitely feel that the marketing influenced my final opinion.

The story feels like a diary entry, which it kinda is, but this is no something I was aware of going in. I found myself skipping over parts because I just wanted it to be over. The novel feels more introspective than action or plot driven. While I love a character driven story this one feels, unpolished. Marie doesn't change as the story progresses, she went in like a fried dumpling and came out like a Johnny Cake.

One of my biggest peeves was how they embodied Thomas Sankara. I do believe that there were attempts to "humanize" him, but we get the sense that he is an adulterer who "gave up" towards the end. Quite frankly, this does not sit well with me.

Had the book focused more on America's efforts to destabilize Communism across Africa it would have been a much tighter read. Instead, what we got was a whiny American who ended up way over her head.

Would not recommend.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,467 reviews564 followers
April 25, 2021
[3.4] I mostly enjoyed listening to this promising novel about a black female CIA operative, but overall found it underwhelming. After a great beginning, I spent most of the novel waiting for it to take off. It eventually comes together - but too late to satisfy me.
Profile Image for Vivian.
2,839 reviews393 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
April 29, 2019
This has the worst opening paragraph: first person point of view that manages to make what should be a tension-filled moment into a myopic moment of tedium.
I unlocked the safe beneath my desk, grabbed my old service automatic, and crept toward my bedroom doorway, stealthy until I was brought to grief by a Lego Duplo that stung the sole of my foot. I hobbled the rest of the way to the door and crouched behind it.

I have no interest in subsequent insights this individual might have. Duplo, really? I get regular death Legos, but Duplo is what gets you. Those rounded edges are killers.

After attempting to read the first page of this book multiple times I'm just going to set it aside without rating because while I have no qualms about rating a book I DNF, not getting past the first page seems a little harsh to me. I'm having a fluffy day.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,168 reviews1,642 followers
April 6, 2022
There are many spy novels out there but the best are novels that capture the CIA’s nation destabilization efforts in a compelling and eye-opening new way.

Kudos, then, to Lauren Wilkinson, whose protagonist is Marie Mitchell, a black woman whose parents are a Harlem-born cop and a Martinique-born, FBI-operative mother. Whip smart, congenitally wary, and unable to tolerate deception, Marie is a character unlike others that readers like me have met before.

After not “playing the game” properly at the CIA, she is given a proposition while on probation: go to the African country of Burkina Faso and use all her wiles to win over its handsome and charismatic leader, Thomas Sankara (a man who really existed and was regarded as an African Che Guevara). Sankara has passionate ideals yet his policies are beginning to sway towards authoritarianism. And that is all I’m going to say here about the plot.

There is much to love about this book. First, it straddles genres – it’s indeed a spy thriller but also a romance story and a glimpse into messy family dynamics. Written as a confessional to her young twin sons, it’s also a guidepost into what a “good American” should really mean. Marie’s duality – identified as a black woman in America and as an American in Africa – also enriches the story. While some of the other characters are slightly on the one-dimensional side, the main characters really shine. 4.5 stars.

Profile Image for Chavelli Sulikowska.
226 reviews220 followers
June 9, 2020
“the first moment you meet someone are precious, because the data on them is plentiful, and your own subjectivity is yet to interfere…”

I felt sceptical starting this debut novel. That it is applauded by Obama on the cover prompted me to persevere beyond the initial pages which I didn’t find particularly inspiring. I think Wilkinson will mature into a successful author, and as a first novel it was a strong effort. The story is engaging and the language is fluent, though a bit conversational.

It is set over several time frames, flitting back on forth, but narrated solely by the central character Marie, aka the American spy. Without revealing too much of the intrigue, the novel is set between the US, Burkina Faso and Martinique. The unusual choice of locations made the story particularly interesting and refreshing.

This is not exactly a spy thriller of Le Carre calibre, but nor can we expect as much from a new author endeavouring to cut her teeth. Where it fell short – it lacked the nail biting suspense and realism necessary to make this a really believable story – something that great spy thrillers rely on. For me, the plot was largely predictable from early on and I didn’t favour the memoir-reflective style narration of Marie to her two sons. Plus a spy would never document their true history on paper, particularly if they wanted to secure the safety of their family. The aspect I really didn’t like was the sudden and inexplicable love interest Marie developed with her target – it was just completely outside what I had been led to believe was her tough, no nonsense, professional character. This was really out of place and significantly undermined the integrity of the plot.

All this aside, I am sure Wilkinson has a promising future – as long as she adopts the right style to her choice of subject and ultimately decides what kind of writer she wants to be.
Profile Image for Jiny S.
307 reviews24 followers
March 9, 2019

This is best story I’ve ever read that gives black women a voice as a marginalized minority in society. It is also one of the best spy books on my shelves. The storytelling is coherent, cognoscible, and not to mention heartpoundingly intense.

Throughout the narration, political ideologies permeate both the protagonist’s personal life and the on the world’s stage that she is involved in as a result of her job. She has to make so many decisions. What is right or wrong that’s not black and white. Where do you draw the line when you are at the edge of a colossal movement, and when you are so minuscule in comparison that the boundaries are pixelated in different shade of grey?

You have to appreciate how wise the protagonist is. While she knows what she wants, despite the myriad obstacles in her way stemmed from her ethnicity and gender, she won’t compromise her principles when temptation comes along. She’s willing to work hard to reach her goals, but on her own on terms. That’s not easy: she has to be piercingly astute and have a strong sense of rectitude and integrity. That combination, is utterly admirable.

This is a strong story, told from from the voice of a strong woman. Although it is a fiction that describes someone who is important to touch the lives of people important enough to start movements and those movements important enough to change the world- the agencies, the struggles, and the emotions are complete believable. The storytelling is rich, coherent, and not afraid of digging deep into messy ideological issues that require extensive excavation.
Profile Image for Nilguen.
199 reviews69 followers
June 13, 2022
Remembering John Le Carré

American Spy: A mind puzzle 🧩 at its finest!

Marie Mitchell, our main protagonist, and her elder sister Helene are girls from the US who envision to become agents working for the government. They take quite an unusual route to accomplish their childhood dreams. On this route, the author Lauren Wilkinson, manages to tell the story with such a verve taking us through some exceptional political incidents throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. She elaborates the Cold War, the Nation of Islam, and the military coup d’etat in Africa interweaving the personal agendas of organisations who allegedly act in the name of governments.

A heart-wrenching attempt by individuals striving for creating a better place in a dysfunctional system ends in tears and sorrow. Marie will come to this insight after having worked for the FBI from 1983 to 1987 fighting for her place as a woman of color, distinguishing between propaganda and reality.

From her ancestors from Barbados, Martinique to her life in Queens in NYC we get to accompany Marie on a journey to Africa, Ouagadougou and Ghana, and see her transform from an aspiring agent to a loving mother of twins whose only ambition becomes her devotion towards her children.

I feel incredibly humbled by all the knowledge and emotions that Wilkinson conveyed with her debut novel. I feel she made her point very well by urging the reader to take a healthy critical point of view on past incidents and to approach news spread around the world with healthy skepticism.

#NetGalley #ThankYou
Profile Image for Katie.dorny.
979 reviews500 followers
January 26, 2020
This was a 3.5/4 star read for me. I can’t believe it’s not on others people’s radar!

I really enjoyed meeting Marie and getting inside her mind.

We travel with her through childhood, her adolescence and everything that shape her into her current federal agent she is. Moreover, she is the only black woman in the 90’s at her office and that is really explored by the author in an uncomfortable but compelling way.

It’s eye opening and at first I thought it was a bit too simply narrated for me, but then I realised I was learning as the protagonist was and that I was being lead down a path I really enjoyed.

None of the characters here are really what they seem, the grey area of America and it’s morality are really well explored.

I hope Marie gets the ending she wants.
June 5, 2022

American Spy opens with a bang only to come screeching to halt within a few pages. What could have been an intriguing tale of espionage is thwarted by lacklustre execution: painfully slow pacing, watching-paint-dry levels of entertainment, cardboard characters, robotic narration, dry dialogues, heavy on the telling...
Aside from its snazzy cover & title, and that brief mention of Nella Larsen's Passing, I sadly didn't like anything about this novel.

In American Spy a Black female former FBI intelligence agent is recounting to her sons—whom she addresses as 'you'—her experiences growing up in the Queens, working for the FBI—a notoriously white and male 'club'—and her time as a spy. The storyline is rather meandering. We learn of Marie's childhood, how her mother left her and her older sister in her father's care, her beginnings at the FBI....by the time we meet her 'target', Thomas Sankara, who was the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, we are nearly at the halfway mark, and by then I had grown already bored by Marie monotone narration.

I found Marie, our protagonist, vexing. Her narration is bogged down by exposition. Marie explains things to death. Her detailing of office politics is lifeless. I never gained an impression of how she felt about anything really, especially about her feelings towards the FBI or her work as a spy or even Sankara. She spends most of the story telling her children (and us) how great she was at her job, at reading people's 'faces', and playing mind games. But in actuality, she's pretty bad at it.
The author's blending of family drama and a tale of political espionage is unconvincing, uneven, boring. The themes and issues the novel touches upon had potential—race, gender, the Cold War, America meddling in foreign countries—but I just felt extremely removed from all of it. I actively disliked the main character, Sankara does not emerge as a charismatic leader, he is a vague impression of a real-life figure, and the other characters seem to fit too neatly in 'good' or 'bad' categories, the lbgtq+ rep, however peripheral to the narrative, was somewhat questionable, and the ending was extremely anticlimactic. In some ways the story cuts off before things actually start happening. This book is all build-up, no pay off.

I read American Spy a few days ago and much about it has already faded from my mind. While I was not expecting this to be an action-driven spy novel, I was nevertheless disappointed by its atrocious pacing and bland storytelling.
Profile Image for Reggie.
115 reviews388 followers
September 3, 2020
People work tirelessly to obtain hard-won goals. In large part due to promises that lay on the other end of countless hours of blood, sweat & tears. The grass is allegedly greener on the other side of those 10,000 hours.

It makes you wonder what happens when a jam is the only thing awaiting you on the other side of that 10,000. A jam that pits you against yourself and what you claim to believe in. But also a jam that gets you in close contact with the one man who can give you definitive information around the death of the person you looked up to most & even inspired your career choice, your older sister who you wanted to be just like, Helene.

Welcome to the world of Marie Mitchell who is now in a jam after the CIA reaches out to her—through her current position at the FBI—to be apart of the team that is going to undermine Thomas Sankara. The charismatic & transformational leader of Burkina Faso. A man who she believes in. Someone who Marie has to admire from a far though, since it might rub her colleagues the wrong way to show that she actually supports the opposition's message.

American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson's impressive debut novel gives American Literature a protagonist you don't see often in this realm with Marie Mitchell. A spy, who happens to be a Black American woman, navigating the latter part of the Cold War years. She doesn't disregard her Blackness, her womanhood or the Cold War either.

She speaks on the sexism of the FBI & the racism of the United States. The sexism that leads the CIA to ask her to "get close" to Thomas Sankara because of her appearance. The racism that breathed life into initiatives like COINTELPRO that surveilled eventual martyrs.

American Spy is a novel of multiple continents, political intrigue on a global scale, high intelligence & many themes. Including, but not limited to misdirection, betrayal, familial loyalty, race, gender, ambition, imperialism & toxic ideologies.

Fortunately this novel isn't one of heroes & villains, because like Marie told her young twin boys—the individuals who this confessional novel is written to—if the people in this story are viewed as such then you have misunderstood her message.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,895 reviews218 followers
August 30, 2021
This is not your typical spy thriller. It is historical fiction about Marie Mitchell, a black woman, daughter of a Martinican mother and an American father, who becomes an FBI agent. It takes place during the Cold War, covering a time period from her childhood in the 1960s to early 1990s. She is offered an opportunity to work with the CIA, which involves meeting Thomas Sankara, a (real) leader in Burkina Faso. His political actions are prominently featured, though his interaction with Marie is fabricated.

The narrative voice is first person, as if Marie is writing a letter to her two young twin sons to document their family history. It opens and closes as a thriller, but in between we learn about Marie’s family – estrangement from her mother, admiration for her sister, and her father’s background as a law enforcement officer. It is a book that shifts from plot-driven to character-driven, then back again.

Significant events take place in Martinique, Burkina Faso, and New York. I particularly enjoyed reading about the culture of these regions. It is nice to see a strong African American woman play the lead role in a spy novel. It is effective in featuring the roles of race and gender in the world of espionage. While it requires a suspension of disbelief in a few places, it is a solid debut and I look forward to reading more from Wilkinson.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
830 reviews764 followers
February 25, 2019
What initially attracted me to this book were two things—the artful, vibrant cover and the title. I’m not a fan of genre spy novels like Bourne Identity, but prefer when the spy content is linked to something deeper and more thematic, such as in Mailer’s HARLOT’S GHOST, DeLillo’s LIBRA, and, more recently, Lea Carpenter’s RED WHITE BLUE. Not that all good spy novels have to have intellectual heft, but in order to engage me, I want to feel something personal in the pages. And this is a genuinely personal novel—written as a letter of love from a mother to her sons.

Wilkinson’s debut novel contains nuggets to chew on--a black American woman, Marie Mitchell, working as a spy for the Feds during the Cold War, who is also a single mother trying to protect her young twin sons. Moreover, her international espionage in Africa is teamed with a tale of romance and universal themes of family. In fact, this is mostly a story of family and trying to protect the ones you love, but it adds a few adrenaline touches of adventure. And don’t read the cover blurb—it gives way too much away!

As the novel opens in 1992, Marie encounters a violent incident in her home, forcing her to take her boys and escape to Martinique to live with her mother. Afterwards, she decides it is important to recount her life history and the years leading up to this moment, so that her boys understand not only the racial and gender divide in this country, but also her choice of profession—why she got involved in working for the FBI and her decisions afterwards. More importantly, she wants her sons, William and Tommy, to possess esteemed ideals and live courageous lives, and to help make America a place that they are proud to live in. She often explains to them why she made certain decisions, and presses upon them, through her writing, the mistakes, regrets, and no-regrets of her life.

If you’ve never heard of Thomas Sankara, the charismatic president of Burkina Faso from 1983-1987, you will come away from this book feeling like you’ve met him and reached into his heart. Marie was persuaded to keep tabs on him in Africa, which led to some of the most poignant events and adventures of her life. I think she wanted to teach her boys not to gauge an ideology superficially, but to evaluate people as individuals. She also desired that Tommy and William understand her, and her family, and their flaws. “Throughout my life, the most consistent way I’ve revealed who I really am is through the men I’ve chosen to love.”

The narrative has many page turning events, and it is peppered with literary and poetic allusions along the way. At times, it did stall with redundancies that felt extraneous, but Wilkinson was in charge of her narrative and didn’t flounder much. I felt rewarded at the end, despite a few over-the-top action scenes and somewhat predictable ones. Yet, for a debut novelist taking on what she did, she impressed me with her radiant and organically flawed characters. Most readers will be on edge wanting to know the truth of what happened to Marie’s sister, Helene, as well as Marie’s tense relationship with her mother, Agathe. And we want to know the outcome of Marie’s story.

“In spy stories, the question of what becomes of a spy’s cover after it’s no longer needed is rarely discussed. But we were still there. We still existed.” Readers will be inspired and satisfied with Wilkinson’s portrayal of her characters and the thrust of her narrative. Perhaps a few of the characters are out of central casting, but her portrait of the Mitchell family—the tragedies, revelations, and ultimate endurance, were vivid and memorable. My gut instinct tells me this will eventually be made into a cable TV prestige series. But whatever happens, I look forward to Wilkinson’s next book.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,766 followers
April 3, 2019
After fending off an attempted assassination, former FBI agent Marie Mitchell flees with her young twin sons to the Caribbean island of Martinique, where her mother lives. She begins a letter to her boys, "I'm writing this to give you honest answers to the questions I hazard to guess you'll ask while you're growing up. I'm writing it all down here just in case I'm not around to tell you."

The letter takes the reader back through time to chronicle Marie's childhood in Harlem, her career as a Fed at the tail end of the Cold War in the 1980s, to present day 1992, where she finds herself a target after her involvement in a coup to overthrow the president of Burkina Faso.

American Spy is a spy novel in the old school tradition of Graham Greene and John Le Carré -cool, mannered, character-driven. The opening sequence is the novel's only real action scene. Debut novelist Lauren Wilkinson is far more interested in emotional intrigue and intellectual investigation. Marie Mitchell is not only the rare woman to make her way into an old boy's club, she's black. American Spy is as much a political thriller of American race and gender as it is a Cold War exposé.

Marie is bumping up against a ceiling of racism and sexism in her New York field office, pushing papers, an ignored bureaucrat, when she is recruited by the CIA. The mission is to undermine the Marxist leader of the west African nation of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara. Marie and Thomas meet cute at the U.N and begin an affair. But it's not a typical honey trap mission for Marie- she has fallen in love with the charismatic leader. Eventually she travels to Burkina Faso and we witness history: Thomas Sankara was a real man and the story of the overthrow of his government is based on actual events.

Wilkinson packs a massive amount of story into this poised, restrained novel. Much of Marie's reminiscence centers around her sister, Helene, who was also in the intelligence community, and the mystery of her death. American nationalism and moral ambiguity also play central roles, as Marie questions the undercover operation that finally pulls her from the wings to center stage.

Despite its complexities and nuances, despite Wilkinson's confident, graceful writing, I was left largely unmoved by the story itself. There was a distance that never really allowed me to know or understand Marie, and I found whatever romance may have existed between her and Sankara rote and passionless. The thread of her sister's mysterious death was left hanging, and the ending came so quickly, I kept turning back pages to see what I'd missed. Even Marie told the story of the coup from a distance- she wasn't there for its final acts.

Still, this is a remarkable, thought-provoking, original novel and an astonishing debut. Highly recommended. 3.5 stars rounded to 4.
Profile Image for Karl Jorgenson.
535 reviews26 followers
November 19, 2021
Wilkinson is a decent writer, and American Spy has an interesting protagonist, but the author has failed to write a complete story. The basic structure of a mystery/thriller/adventure is that something happens early in the book forcing the hero to change course. In the middle of the book the hero's efforts are thwarted and they realize they have to do something different; in the last segment the hero triumphs. The story in American Spy begins well: somebody tries to kill Marie in her house, an assassin sent by someone Marie clashed with. Wow! Now she'll have to hide her kids and fix this problem. But actually, the book is all flashback, detailing Marie growing up, her relationship with her father (a policeman) and her sister, who wants to be a spy. Marie becomes an FBI agent, and in her twenties (young to be accepted in the FBI) she realizes she can't have everything right now, so she becomes a spy on a foreign leader. She has a falling out with her spymasters, murdering one of them, and we circle back to the first chapter where the other spymaster is seeking revenge. And the book stops, outcome unknown, story unfinished.
The book has traction because Marie is black, and the title may be the most powerful, clever element. Marie is told (or discovers) that she and other Blacks are spies in America, pretending to be one person while secretly working to achieve promotions, respect, and wealth. Fair point. But as someone who once worked for a corporation, I pretended to be someone I wasn't (interested, engaged, enthusiastic) while secretly working to advance my status. Hey! I was a spy too!
Part of my distaste is that Marie and her family have done so well: they own expensive houses in New York, her father is a respected, retire NY cop, and Marie is in the FBI. Young Marie is not given the respect of her much-more experienced (white, male) colleagues, and not given choice assignments (though working in NY IS a choice assignment--other rookies staff the Bose, Montana office or Bismarck, North Dakota.) Marie's frustration seems like typical millennial impatience: 'I showed up for work on time and turned in my paperwork, why can't I be in charge of the anti-terrorist squad?' To me she seems arrogant and naïve. There's a point to be made about racism and sexism built into organizations: few Black Women become FBI agents in their twenties, but when they are, they will find roadblocks to advancement at every level. But Marie isn't the person to make this point: the FBI is not the NBA where the new star rises to the top in one season.
The story has other hard-to-palate fantasies: the spymasters are building army camps all over Africa, paid by governments and corporations. The camps have no purpose except to be ready when the US or some other power needs to invade. Huh? Twenty years of war in Afghanistan was run out of temporary trailers. The spymasters work with the FBI and the US government, but the US is apparently unaware the spymasters are plotting and executing revolutions on their own. It seems like the imagining of an author who has watched a lot of 'Mission Impossible.'
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,087 reviews222 followers
August 18, 2019
I really enjoyed this twist on the typical spy novel. I loved Marie and her story. I didn’t really know much about the actual history so I I had to do some googling. Well written and engaging. Definitely recommend.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,868 followers
July 29, 2022
There is much to admire about the territory this ambitious novel is exploring. I’m unaware of any other work of historical fiction that explores what the experiences of a Black female FBI officer might be like; and I haven’t yet read any other works that dig into the ways in which America’s intelligence apparatus has interfered with African politics. So I am happy to have been exposed to those aspects of our nation’s complex and troubled history. I just felt continually left at arm’s length by the approach Wilkinson took in creating her first-person narrative voice. I think it’s undeniably challenging to find a compelling sweet spot in creating the voice of a character who’s as guarded and compartmentalized as Marie, but the efforts here to do so fell a bit flat for me.

Onto the next.
Profile Image for Rachel Bennett.
577 reviews29 followers
March 19, 2019
I'll start by saying that this book wasn't great. I wanted it to be, but it was not. However, it gets 3 stars for me for some really refreshing originality.

One of the reasons I was so excited to pick this book up in the first place is the unique premise. It's the 1980s, and Marie is a black female FBI agent with a troubled past and big ambition. She's not really getting anywhere in her FBI career and ends up working for the CIA in Africa, trying to de-stabilize an authoritarian, Communist government. What more could I possibly want??

The book opens a bang, with a really intense scene where we see Marie as this amazing fighter, fending off an intruder and protecting her children. Maternal bad-assery? I was immediately hooked and could not wait to find out more about Marie and her work as an agent and spy.

Unfortunately, the character quickly falls apart for me, as we go back in time and see Marie making these wild decisions that aren't really explained. She makes a senseless move that intentionally threatens her career in the FBI, gets involved with the CIA even though she doesn't want to, and makes major, life-changing decisions based on her feelings for someone (supposedly a deep love, although I never saw any proof of that). I guess I felt like the character of Marie was really let down by a lack of real motivation for any of these actions and for the way that her love story makes her a simpering idiot (UGH, a real pet peeve of mine).

The book also had some issues with pacing and narrative drive. The whole novel is framed as journal entries addressed to her twin boys, which was an interesting decision (interesting as in, not one I would have gone with.) The addresses to "you" frequently took me out of the narrative as I was constantly trying to remember who she's actually talking to. If her children played a larger role in the story, maybe it would have made sense, but they were not much beyond this narrative device.

I think most of the issues I'm highlighting are coming from the fact that this was a debut work - I think there is still work to be done by this author, but if she improves her narrative structure and character development, and continues bringing interesting premises like this one to the table, I will certainly be interested in reading what she does next.
Profile Image for La Tonya  Jordan.
289 reviews90 followers
November 23, 2019
The beginning of this book drags. After the first 100 pages, it starts to get interesting. I like Marie and Helene characters. The complete idea of black women spies is captivating. For Marie to live out Helene dream of being a spy to make the world a better place to live is the fantasy. She later found out she was only being complicit in making the world more unsafe with the United States of America's blessing. She takes this disappointment and starts a journal to leave for her twin son's in case she is killed. The journal speaks to her most intimate thoughts and feelings. To sum up her entire life and hope is simple, she wants her two boys to be better than she. I adored how she would refer to her twin boys as one entity. It made the reading all the more interesting. A Good Read.


They could either follow bureau policy or they could uphold the law. They weren't always the same thing.

I realized that Ross had said he'd never been to Burkina, which meant he'd lied to my face. And although I prided myself on my ability to detect deceit, I hadn't picked up on it.

The guide had a gap between his front teeth and was also armed, carrying a rusted hunting rifle that must've been just for show; it couldn't possibly have stopped a charging elephant.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,599 reviews192 followers
October 2, 2019
I enjoyed this a lot. Part spy story, but also so much more, with essentially a giant letter to main character Marie’s sons framing this story.
This book has so much going on in it, as Marie describes different periods of her past to her sons, explaining how she got to where she did. There are complicated family dynamics, the experience of growing up terrified of a nuclear war, the dual nature of the judicial system based on one’s skin colour, being sidelined and constantly diminished at work for being a woman, the American government’s propensity to meddle in and destroy other countries’ governments, the lack of oversight on US-employed security/intelligence contractors and their greed, and motherhood. Phew! I’m sure there’s more, but that’s enough to describe how much is going on in this story, which reads quickly and has interesting things to say while its complex main character relates her experiences.
Profile Image for Michelle.
603 reviews457 followers
October 9, 2018
Revised Review 10/2018:

4 Stars

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for providing me an advance copy of this book. I greatly appreciate the opportunity and below have provided an unbiased review.

Marie Mitchell is an FBI agent who while extremely qualified, is consistently passed over for high profile assignments. When you work for the FBI in the 1980's, you're living in a man's world. While buried in paperwork, she is left to wonder when her opportunity will come. One day, she is approached by the CIA to take an assignment in West Africa, where she is asked to get close to the young President and help the United States advance their interests over a budding Communist ally, Marie accepts the mission, but unexpectedly falls for her mark and so begins a story of complexity that only a talented author such as Lauren Wilkinson could tell.

While things have improved today in some instances and definitely on paper, there still exist the subtle ways women face constant discrimination. Whether it be that women are consistently underestimated, second guessed, "mansplained" to, etc. So it doesn't take much stretch of the imagination to put myself in Marie's shoes, trying to push against the current of the good ol' boys club, where she outmatches her supervisor and colleagues in intelligence and skill. How Marie's strengths and weaknesses are used against her are interesting to watch unfold.

I enjoyed this book and not only felt that it was very well written and researched, but was unique in its category. Having the main character be a black woman and the setting of the story take place outside of Europe or the Soviet Union was a way to set this apart from many other Cold War era spy novels. Marie is a complex character who has many flaws, but that only makes her more interesting. My one criticism, which prevented me from giving the book a higher rating was the ending. I don't want to give anything away, but for me it left too many things unresolved.
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