By Lea Carpenter
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages
The first page of “Red, White, Blue” notes that Anna had inherited grace. “She was, some might say, born for public life. She was also born temperamentally disposed against it, against even the occasional party.”
Anna — the central character of Lea Carpenter’s novel — studied Chinese at Princeton because her father, Noel, “said it was essential to understand the world,” and also Russian because her mother, Lulu, “said it was essential, to understand the novels.” She graduated “Summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, absolutely no clue.”
Lulu left Noel when Anna was 6, and that’s one thing that haunts her. The other, more important thing, is Noel’s death in an avalanche that pounded down while he was skiing on the day before her wedding in Switzerland.
Noel was a self-made New York banker who loved literature and Asia, especially China. He was also obsessed with the Salem witch trials. He adored Anna, and she adored and admired him. Others also admired him: He was smart, witty: in a word, charismatic. So, while Anna lacked the hands-on care of her mother, she had pretty much everything else: A devoted father, a moneyed lifestyle, a Princeton education followed by a job at the Ford Foundation, and eventually a charming and talented husband who sells his lucrative music business and runs for the Senate.
But — and this big “But” goes to the heart of the novel — her father was also a CIA spy, and while Anna is on her honeymoon in Cap d’Antibes in the South of France, she meets his colleague, who would pull her “soaking and alive” from the tank of loss where she had been foundering since her father’s death. His method is to recount what he knows of Noel’s life and indeed of the CIA.
The foregoing description of “Red, White, Blue” may suggest a gripping tale of what Anna learns about her father, and the effects of this new information. But while the novel touches on these topics, it is far from gripping. At the beginning readers’ interest will be caught by the description of Anna and the first thoughts and comments of her interlocutor in Cap d’Antibes, but the meandering narrative, its shifts in place and time, and the repetitive obiter dicta soon weaken its hold.
Characterization does little to remedy this hobbled narrative. While Anna is described almost obsessively, she rarely comes alive on the page, partly because for much of the novel she is grieving for Noel and for most of it she is listening to the person who is telling her about his life as a spy. That person is unnamed, so is no more than an alter ego of the narrator. As for Noel and Lulu, both appear as bright and witty presences, but they play character-actor parts — as does Anna’s husband — grabbing attention when they take center stage, but fading when they exit to the wings.
Thematically the novel is more interesting. It explores truth, or rather, how we know what’s true. Noel notes that during the Salem witch trials Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, decreed “spectral evidence” — which the accusers culled from dreams and visions — was inadmissible. This position — essentially what we know by intuition rather than by concrete evidence — is now enshrined in the law. But what about evidence gathered from polygraph interrogations? Anna’s informant tells her “The polygraph is a very elaborate parlor trick. Your chance of detecting deception on a poly is no better than that, chance.”
Then there’s language. It can cut to the truth, but equally it can avoid or hide it. “You could imagine a historical moment when it became clear, a moment when everyone knew what was going on, knew that their government had evolved a sophisticated apparatus for covert action and that we, the American people, needed to accept that there were things we would know and things we wouldn’t. We would also have to accept a third category of facts: Things we didn’t want to know.”
Memory is an equally unreliable way to get to the truth. Anna believes memory and forgetting are acts of will, so “Memory is as reliable as a forecast, which is to say not reliable at all.”
Yet despite all these problems, Noel believed “The truth will set you free,” though when Anna asks him if he really believes that he quips “Yes. If the truth approves of your exit plan.”
Readers who are interested in exploring such conundrums may find plenty to intrigue them in “Red, White, Blue.” Those fascinated by the workings of the CIA may also make their way to the end, where the author’s note tells them that her book is fiction and none of her interviewees “disclosed classified information.” Lovers of the roller-coaster spy thriller or the artfully characterized literary novel will be disappointed.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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