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The Quest for Anna Klein by Thomas H. Cook

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on June 21, 2011

On behalf of a foreign affairs think tank, in the aftermath of 9/11, twenty-four-year-old Paul Crane agrees to interview ninety-one-year-old Thomas Jefferson Danforth in the belief that Danforth can provide insight into the terrorist attack. Crane is vexed by Danforth's failure to come quickly to the point of the meeting he requested. Instead, Danforth has a story to tell -- a story that begins in 1939 with Danforth's recruitment to "the Project." Point of view shifts frequently between Crane's first person account of the 2001 interview and the third person narration of Danforth's story (a story Danforth repeatedly describes as "a little parable").

Danforth's friend Clayton initially asks Danforth to volunteer his country home in Connecticut as a training ground for Anna Klein, a spy-to-be who speaks nine languages. In Connecticut, "a little steel ball of a fellow" named LaRoche teaches Anna to shoot a pistol and to use the destructive tools of sabotage. Clayton asks Danforth to learn more about Anna, to be sure of her loyalty. As Danforth spends more time with Anna, he comes to understand that he is terrified by the prospect of living an ordinary life. Despite Clayton's warning of the perils he might face, Danforth volunteers to accompany Anna to Europe and to assist her role in the Project, without yet knowing what the Project might be. Encouraged by Anna and caught up in his "lust to matter," Danforth realizes he wants to be more than "a little spy"; he wants to do something important. He also wants to be near Anna. As they travel together to France and then to Berlin, Danforth gradually learns of the Project's dangerous goal. But he also learns more about Anna ... and what he learns he will later unlearn, and relearn, and repeatedly question.

The Quest for Anna Klein turns out to be exactly that: Danforth's quest to understand Anna and to learn her fate. As he gains more information, both during and after the war, he realizes that she might not have been the person he judged her to be. There is an unusual love story in this novel as Danforth comes to feel "like a character in a Russian novel, love and death mingled in a darkly Slavic way." Yet as a reader would expect from an intricately plotted story of espionage, the love story isn't a simple one. Danforth is "doomed to live forever with the incurable affliction of having loved at a moment of supreme peril a woman of supreme mystery." It is a mystery that consumes his life. He is equally consumed by a desire for revenge, although the target of his revenge keeps changing.

Betrayal and loss of trust are the stuff of spy stories, but rarely are the deeply felt consequences of treachery portrayed as convincingly as they are in The Quest for Anna Klein. In many ways this novel is an eloquent story of nearly unbearable pain. The pain that flows from betrayal is palpable in Cook's characters but Danforth endures physical agony as well. Danforth's description of his experiences in Stalin's Russia after the war, including dehumanizing detentions in Lubyanka and a series of labor camps, are haunting. Working in the freezing winter, Danforth longs for summer; fighting mosquitoes in the summer, he aches for the return of winter. "Every blessing brings a curse," Danforth tells Crane, "even the gift of another day of life. Because you are already dead."

In a novel that layers intrigue upon intrigue, I expected to be surprised by the ending, but I was surprised by the surprise. Three surprises, actually, none of which I saw coming, all of which removed my reservations about the novel -- reservations I can't address without revealing the ending. If you read the novel and think part of its premise is unlikely, keep reading to the end. The book addresses timeless moral questions about the nature of innocence and accountability and vengeance, but in the end, it was the story that mattered to me. This is a skillfully plotted and well-executed novel.


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Reader Comments (2)

I finished reading "The Quest for Anna Klein" and I found it to be as good as your review insisted. There is one thing bothering me about the story though and I was wondering if perhaps you could comment on it?
In the last of the story, Alma gives Paul her neckless; why does she do this and what was the significance of this act?

August 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary LaPinsky

Thank you for your kind comment and for your perceptive question. Unfortunately, given the passage of time and the number of books I've read since finishing this one, I have only a dim memory of the scene you mention. I glanced through the book again and noted that the necklace had a star and crescent moon, which appear on the Turkish flag and are considered to be holy symbols by many people who inhabit the former Ottoman Empire. Given Anna's history, I suppose that explains why Alma wore it to honor her grandmother, but I don't recall the necklace appearing any earlier in the story. Perhaps a reader with a better memory will find your question and give us a better answer.

August 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterTChris

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