Originally from Southern California, Joe Hong is currently a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. While he has a passion for all literary form, Joe has recently been inspired by the novels and short stories written by contemporary American writers, which has led him to pursue writing this column for Dappered. His other pastimes include watch collecting and craft whiskies.
This novel has a slow start.
It almost feels as if it’s your first day on the job at the CIA, and some jaded senior officer is explaining protocols while giving you a tour of the facility. But the pacing of the first 100 pages is very much what gives Red Sparrow, and its author Jason Matthews, their credibility. A retired CIA operations directorate, Mr. Matthews fills his pages with copious details informed by a nearly 35 year career. Although the novel often reads like nonfiction, especially in the beginning, this Edgar Award winner for Best First Novel satisfyingly accelerates into a high-suspense spy thriller.
Over 33 years in the CIA, author Jason Matthews “engaged in clandestine collection of national security intelligence.”
Red Sparrow centers its story around Nate Nash and Dominika Egorova. The former is an American CIA operative who fits the Captain America archetype: charming, honest, and noble. The latter is a young, beautiful, and emotionally scarred Russian operative trained at what is referred to as The Sparrow School, a vestigial Soviet institution that teaches its students how to sexually manipulate and seduce persons of interest. Matthews’s writing successfully engages the reader within the tense dynamics between these two characters, in both its romantic and professional contexts.
He best communicates these tensions in scenes in which characters share a meal. A meal between two spies for Matthews provides the perfect setting for the collision of the mundane and the extraordinary. Matthews’s prose attempts to negotiate between descriptions of food to those of the convoluted mind-games occurring between the diners. To further emphasize the dining table’s transformation into a battlefield, Matthews ends each chapter with a recipe of an entrée consumed during the chapter.
But the novel is far from perfect. Like many spy-thrillers, both written and cinematic, the realism is selective. While the descriptions of the bureaucratic and mundane elements of espionage sharpen the prose, Matthews’s female characters are indiscriminately over-sexualized. Descriptions of female bodies and behaviors undoubtedly seem a bit ham-fisted at times. Moreover, the reader can get irritated spectating Matthews’s attempts to balance everyday experiences and the high-octane lives of spies. Specifically, the recipes at the end of each chapter more than once disrupt the suspense and intensity of the preceding chapter, feeling almost silly at times.
This is a quick read that resembles some summer blockbuster movies. If you’re looking for a fun easy read, then by all means proceed. But it’s not for those seeking intellectual stimulation or provocative social commentary.