Review: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

In Russia, the Cold War has never really come to an end.

The young Dominika Egorava has been training as a ballerina since she was a little girl but when an accident leaves her unable to continue dancing, she must look other places for a way to support herself.

Her father is dead and her mother lives in an apartment which is maintained by her uncle, Vanya, who is the head of Russian Intelligence. When Vanya sees Dominika at her father’s funeral, he sees her beauty and sees it as a way to manipulate a source he has been after.

Vanya approaches her and asks if she would be interested in helping him gain valuable information from this source by any means necessary. Dominika agrees to help and suddenly finds herself in the world of international espionage and spies.

After successfully helping her uncle he offers her a position at the Intelligence agency as a secretary but she would rather be an operative. While in training as an operative, her beauty doesn’t go unnoticed. She is forced into training as a Red Sparrow….spies trained in the art of seduction.

Mean while, American CIA agent Nate Nash fumbles a job in Russia. He almost reveals his top mole but he manages to get this contact out and elude capture. His superior officer isn’t happy, and thus removes him from duty in Russian. Nate is reassigned to Finland….a career dead end basically.

Nate’s reassignment has not gone unnoticed by Russian Intelligence though. Vanya assigns the freshly trained sparrow, Dominika, to ensnare Nash and find out who his source was.

The two spies collide in a whirlwind of deception, forbidden sexual desire, and double dealing. Dominika is seeking revenge against her uncle and those who forced her into the degrading service as a sparrow, and Nate is looking to redeem his career by any means necessary.

This novel keeps you in a state of near paranoia. Who can you trust? Who is leading a double life? Does anyone every really tell the truth?

I was very intrigued by the idea of this novel. At first I worried that the Dominika was going to be a knock off Bond girl, meant to fill a sexual or romantic need in the story. But I was surprised by her depth, character, and story. Through Nash was meant to be the protagonist, I was infinitely more engaged in Dominika’s character from the beginning. I liked that Matthews wasn’t afraid to make her more on the gritty side.

I liked that she could emotionally detach herself from different situations…..it was a little disconcerting at times but I thought it made her character more mysterious and again….gritty. I like characters like that. She wasn’t overly girly and cliche the way some heroines are so the fact that she was different made me love her.

The life of a sparrow was a fascinating world to enter into. I’m not sure that it would want to dive into but on the whole it seems like an interesting aspect of international intrigue. I wanted to know so much more about this field….how does one get recruited as a sparrow? Why would one want to become one? So many question circulated in my mind as the chapters went on….especially when Dominika went to spy sparrow school…..this book really appealed to my curiosity for that reason alone, not because of the sexual aspects of the novel but simply because the field is not one that you just wake up one day and decide on. It’s abstract and gritty….I instantly wanted to know more.

There were a few things that bothered me about the novel, one more than the other. First, it took me a while to get into the novel. I was about 25% of the way in before I really understood what was going on. Some of the ‘spy’ lingo was a little disorientating for someone who hasn’t read a lot of spy novels or who is unfamiliar with the genre. I am not up on all my Cold War era history or Russian politics so it was a little hard for me to envision the ‘political climate’ of the country. But once you get through some of the background/history and foundation building it moves a long fairly quickly.

The biggest thing that bugged me about this novel was the recipes at the end of each chapter. WTF was the only thing going through my mind at the end of each chapter. One minute there was a climatic or sexual moment and then there’s a recipe for beef strew. This left me completely scratching my head…..I am at a loss for words. I just couldn’t get past this aspect of the novel. Not only did it add nothing to the novel, if you are going to have recipes in the middle of a book at least have them collected at the end and please add measurements for said recipes! How am I supposed to make them if I don’t know how much [insert ingredient here] to add?

I mean, this was a huge distraction for me. I would have rated the book much higher than I did if it didn’t have the recipes at the end. It would be one thing is this was a foodie book, but it’s not….it’s a book about spies…why would you put recipes in there? I know this sounds like a trivial thing and perhaps it is, but for me it was just too distracting. I would finish a chapter and hope that somehow the recipe thing would tie in at some point and it just….didn’t. Ever.

If you can get past the weirdness of the recipes at awkward moments in the story line then it’s a great spy novel. I am excited to read more from this author….but only if there aren’t anymore recipes! I loved how Matthews builds up the climax of the novel and deepens the character’s and the plot….but if I wanted to know how to make pea soup I wouldn’t have picked up this novel, in fact that would be the last place I would look.

Overall….B- for the story, F for the recipes.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

  • Hardcover, 431 pages
  • Published June 4th 2013 by Scribner (first published May 7th 2013)
  • ISBN 1476706123 (ISBN13: 9781476706122)
  • Review copy provided by: Publisher in exchange for an honest review

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 3.5 out of 5

Genre: Spy novel, thriller

Memorable lines/quotes: NA

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4 Comments

  1. HMShankman

     /  August 14, 2013

    Well, your review definitely made me want to read this book…if only for the weirdness of including recipes in a book about spies! (I’ve read most of John LeCarre’s work. Believe me. There are no recipes to be found.)

    Reply
  2. diode64

     /  December 2, 2013

    I loved the recipes!

    Reply
  3. Ron

     /  January 2, 2014

    I also liked the recipes, but I am a bit of a foodie.

    Book was terrific.

    Reply
  4. Max

     /  May 26, 2014

    Ways that a book critic adds value:
    a) Provides content that adds to the reader’s experience (1+1=2).
    b) Provides recommendations that guide the choices of potential readers (0+1=1).
    c) Creates controversy to elicit discussion, which adds value for some readers and potential readers (0.5 *1=0.5).

    I think this critic’s complaint about the recipes falls into category c), and so, for me, her comment adds no value. (I liked the recipes; I just made one). But, ironically, I’m adding to the discussion by criticizing the critic.

    So, what should a potential reader do? Follow the advice of the critic, or the critic of the critic?

    The book puts the characters in similar conundrums. If you like that sort of thing, read it.

    Reply

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