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The distaff side

Cover of Our Woman in Moscow
A review of Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams

In 1951 two British government officials, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, left on a boat sailing from Southampton to France and then disappeared. Though there were suspicions that they had defected to the Soviet Union, this wasn't confirmed until five years later when they appeard at a press conference in Moscow. In the years after this it became clear that they were not the only two British "gentlemen" to have been recruited by the KGB, there were at least 3 others and they all became known as the Cambridge Five. Men who had been recruited while still in college in the 1930s and lured by the idea that communism was an admirable political system and would help the rest of the world fight fascism. As the years passed between college and the 50s they rose in rank in the government and passed a lot of stuff to the Soviets. Theirs is an intriguing story. Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams uses that true story as a jumping off point for her historical novel and centers it on three women, all impacted by these Cold War machinations.

Iris and Ruth are fraternal sisters who find their lives diverging when they travel to Italy in 1940. Ruth has always been the outgoing, popular one and Iris has existed in her shadow. But in Rome Iris meets and falls in love with Sasha Digby who works at the American Embassy. When Italy and Germany officially go to war, Ruth tries to get Iris to leave Italy with her, to no avail. And it will be twelve years before Ruth hears from Iris again. Iris marries Sasha and travels with him to his various diplomatic assignments, but she struggles with the secrets Sasha keeps and their impact on the family. All of that comes to a head in 1948 when Iris, Sasha and their kids disappear from London and are not seen or heard from again for four years. In 1952 Ruth is a successful businesswoman living and working in New York. She hasn't heard from or about Iris in more than a decade and then two events combine to send her on a quest to find her sister. 

This is a slow-build of a novel, told from the perspectives of three different women (Ruth, Iris and a surprising third), and reads at first as purely character-driven family drama. Deceptively so. Because along the way Williams is weaving a complex plot of spies and counterspies and bringing everything together so deftly and smoothly that I had to re-read the last few chapters to make sure I hadn't missed anything. Nicely done.


Jun 25, 2024