Book Review: A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton
By Janet WebbSeptember 17, 2021
A Most Clever Girl is based on the life of the American communist spy Elizabeth Bentley. She was recruited in New York City at the beginning of World War II to fight against fascism. Elizabeth was a well-educated loner working in dead-end jobs. On a personal level, becoming a communist meant she suddenly had a coterie of friends, something she’d been lacking. The American communists soon realized that Elizabeth was preternaturally gifted at spycraft and espionage, hence her code name Clever Girl. After the war ended and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were at odds, Elizabeth became a Cold War double agent spying for the Russians and the United States.
Stephanie Marie Thornton cleverly unfurls Elizabeth Bentley’s complicated story through the device of Elizabeth answering fraught, exhaustive biographical questions. In the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination and her mother’s death, Catherine (Cat) Gray shows up on Elizabeth’s Connecticut doorstep brandishing a gun. Cat is incandescent with rage.
“You ruined my life, you Communist bitch. And now you’re going to pay for it.”
She’d thought she’d be able to just pull the trigger, to end all this and escape the lethal undertow of pain. But when the moment came . . .
Can I really end someone else’s life? Am I capable of that?
To Elizabeth’s credit, she merely blinked. Was she really so accustomed to staring down the muzzle of a gun? “Well, Catherine Gray, unfortunately I ruined a lot of people’s lives. Why don’t you come in and we can discuss like civilized people what I did that was so heinous that you want to kill me?”
Whatever Cat had been expecting while she rehearsed this scene in her head on the train ride up from Washington, DC, a civilized chat was decidedly not it.
Cat decides to briefly talk with Elizabeth, but when she gets her answers, she intends to kill Elizabeth and then turn the gun on herself. She tells Elizabeth she has an hour to talk before Cat decides whether to kill her. But threats don’t phase Elizabeth. She lights up a Lucky Strike and takes a deep drag.
“I’m fifty-five years old, Catherine, and I was a spy, for God’s sake. It’s going to take longer than one hour to recite my entire life’s story.”
But Cat’s a cool customer too and she tells Elizabeth to start talking before winding the kitchen timer for an hour. In rather Dickensian fashion, Elizabeth’s story begins with her standing in front of an open casket, after being freshly orphaned. Elizabeth forcefully reminds Cat that what she visualizes emerges from Elizabeth’s imagery and words. Cat will be led, like most people, to see what she wants to see, hear what she wants to hear. Elizabeth is a powerful storyteller. She continues, “Let this be my first lesson to you: words matter. Use them carefully, like bullets.” A relationship between Elizabeth and Cat develops in the wake of hours and hours of questions and answers although Cat is hard-pressed to distinguish between Elizabeth’s truth and lies.
A picture on the mantlepiece is the only photograph in the entire apartment. A man with “dark hair, boxy jaw with the hint of a one-sided dimple, expressive lips.” Cat asks Elizabeth if it’s Levin, her handler. Elizabeth responds that it is before taunting Cat’s avid curiosity.
“Everything in its time, Catherine. Unless you have somewhere to be?”
They both knew she didn’t.
Elizabeth took it upon herself to wind the kitchen timer this time, then raised a hand to the photograph of Levin and stroked a thumb across his jawline. “God, but I worshipped the ground that man walked on . . .”
Perhaps it’s not surprising for a young woman to be blown away by her handler, considering the intimacy of their work, but Yasha (his real name) is the love of Elizabeth’s life. She is shocked when he tells her that he’s Russian and that he has a wife there, but she believes Yasha when he says she’s the wife of his heart. Yasha neglects his health, possibly because of his precarious, secret status in America. While still a relatively young man, he dies of a surprise heart attack. Afterwards, Elizabeth painstakingly burns all evidence of his ties to the Communist party.
I continued my vigil until there was nothing left.
Yasha was gone. But his legacy—his life’s work—was not.
Because he’d entrusted it to me. I was alone now, but I had one thing that would keep me going.
I was still Yasha’s Umnitsa.
I was still Clever Girl.
In the wake of Yasha’s death, Clever Girl transforms herself into the uncrowned Red Spy Queen. Foreshadowing alert: Elizabeth and Cat’s lives are linked in surprising ways. Only a woman steeped in the dark arts, someone who lies as convincingly as she breathes, can give Cat the truths she needs to understand her life.
A Most Clever Girl complements movies like The Majestic and television series like The Americans, satisfying our continuing interest in Russian espionage on American soil.