An engaging political mystery
A mysterious first lady.
The intrepid journalist writing her biography.
And the secret that could destroy them both.
Tired of covering the grating dysfunction of Washington and the increasingly outrageous antics of President Henry Caine, White House correspondent Sofie Morse quits her job and plans to leave politics behind. But when she gets a call from the office of First Lady Lara Caine, asking Sofie to come in for a private meeting with Lara, her curiosity is piqued. Sofie, like the rest of the world, knows little about Lara — only that Lara was born in Soviet Russia, raised in Paris, and worked as a model before moving to America and marrying the notoriously brash future president.
When Lara asks Sofie to write her official biography, and to finally fill in the gaps of her history, Sofie’s curiosity gets the better of her. She begins to spend more and more time in the White House, slowly developing a bond with Lara — and eventually a deep and surprising friendship with her.
Even more surprising to Sofie is the fact that Lara is entirely candid about her mysterious past. The First Lady doesn’t hesitate to speak about her beloved father’s work as an undercover KGB officer in Paris — and how he wasn’t the only person in her family working undercover during the Cold War.
As Lara’s story unfolds, Sofie can’t help but wonder why Lara is rehashing such sensitive information. Why to her? And why now? Suddenly Sofie is in the middle of a game of cat and mouse that could have explosive ramifications.
I’ve been a fan of Anna Pitoniak’s novels for quite a while (I read an ARC of her debut, The Futures, quite early), and so was very interested in reading this novel. The premise is undoubtedly going to grab attention, given recent political events in the US. Our American Friend is an engaging, well-written Cold War and political mystery. I enjoyed it.
It’s worth getting one thing out of the way right away: it’s probably inevitable that you’ll think of Melania Trump when you first start reading this. However, this is not meant to be a fictionalized account of the Trumps in the White House. Yes, President Caine is a Trump-ish Republican; and, yes, Lara is Russian. However, this is not an attempt to either tear down or build up Melania Trump.
The story alternates between present day Washington and New York, and Cold War Russia. Journalist Sofie Morse is invited to the White House to speak with First Lady Lara Caine, and offered the opportunity of a lifetime: ghost-write the memoir of the notoriously mysterious and secretive First Lady. But why Sofie? She’s not sympathetic to the administration — rather, she’s openly critical of it. Whatever the reason, this is an opportunity that is too good to pass up, and so Sofie starts to get to know FLOTUS. It’s a slow-going and frustrating process, as she needs to gain the First Lady’s trust, and there often appear to be topics that are no-go areas. However, through persistence and perseverance, Sofie is able to peel back the layers of Lara’s past — all the while, trying to keep the project as secret as possible. Politics, however, inevitably invades the process, and the inevitable tension arises between author and subject.
Lara’s history is told in flashbacks, and Pitoniak does an excellent job of trading off between the present and the past, revealing details only gradually. There were a few twists and surprises sprinkled throughout, and it all builds to a pretty satisfying conclusion. The characters are well-drawn, the plot moves at a good clip without feeling slow or rushed. Each of Pitoniak’s books has been better than the one before, and this is no different.
If you’re a fan of political thrillers and mysteries, then I think you’ll find much to like in Our American Friend. I can’t wait to read what Pitoniak writes next.
Anna Pitoniak’s Our American Friend is due to be published by Simon & Schuster in North America, on February 15th, 2022. (At the time of writing, I couldn’t find any information about a UK publisher.)
Also on CR: Review of The Futures