St Martin’s Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-98784-6
Historical Romance, 2004
The Spy is a complete one-eighty degrees turn from The Pretender. Whereas The Pretender deals with fun but smart people, The Spy is all about ditsy klutzes masquerading as “cute” people. The book has its moments, but never once do I really believe that James Cunnington and Phillipa Atwater are as intelligent as Celeste Bradley claims that they are.
Phillipa is on the run. Her father, Rupert Atwater, is missing after being taken away by Napoleon’s men. She has fled to England, the source of all that is good according to romance authors when they are not writing about Americans or Scots. Hungry, penniless, what can she do but to apply when James Cunnington advertises for a male tutor for his adopted brat, right? Her father has scribbled a note saying that James is to be watched, so Phillipa believes that James may also have an answer or two for her if she plays her cards right. Meanwhile, taking care of his brat Robbie is one of the many problems James is facing. Rupert the famous codebreaker may be aiding Napoleon against Rupert’s former buddies and James also wants to see his old mistress that turned out to be some Uber Bitch Villainess to really pay and pay and pay and pay for her sins. How nice for him that Ms Bradley waves the magic wand of utter contrivance and puts her under his roof, although while everyone can see through Phillipa’s “manly” disguise (including Robbie) at first glace, this super spy can’t.
This is a story that has an overblown view of what constitutes “intelligence”. For example, Phillipa has a wonderful idea of twisting her name, Phillipa Atwater into Phillip A Walters and Ms Bradley acts as if this is simply the act of a truly genius heroine. Okay, I may not be some brainiac like Phillipa here, but won’t it make more sense to take on a name that will not link Phillipa’s disguise to her? Is coming up with a name like Simon B Cecil or Don B Stoopid – any name that will not let any villain with half a brain to easily link “Phillipa Atwater” to “Phillip A Walters” – beyond the capability of Phillipa’s supreme intellect? Many of her subsequent actions in this book may be “cute”, but there is no way that Phillipa can be even considered smart, not even close.
Likewise, James can be “cute” but his “cute” moments arrive at the expense of his credibility as a supposedly intelligent spy. It is bad enough that for so long in the story he is unable to see through Phillipa’s disguise when everyone else under his employ can do so at a glance, but he doesn’t really do much in this book other than to mope and whine about His Horrible Inadvertent Betrayal of his fellow Liars. Which brings me to another thing – for a club of secret agents, the Liar’s Club seems to be very open and informal in letting people outside the club know of its existence and its admission criteria seems very loose.
Phillipa and James are quite likable although the author overdoes that “cute” thing and make these two ditsy and sometimes just outright stupid at times. The plot is not only filled with contrivances that emphasis “cute” too much for my liking, it is also riddled with transparent and groan-inducing contrivances such as Phillipa posing as some harem girl dancer to seduce James just for that One Special Moment for a Lifetime nonsense. Likewise, instead of James acting rationally once he learns of Phillipa’s real identity, he goes into a predictable rampage that makes him even more dim than ever.
At the end of the day, The Spy is too over-the-top in its attempt to dumb down its characters and plots to milk the laughter or awwww moments. While there are no dancing pink fluffy bunnies or people running around honking on red clown noses, the end result is still the same: The Spy tries too hard to be charming and adorable by passing off insipid silliness as the new cute.