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Our American Friend
By Anna Pitoniak ’10
Simon & Schuster, $27.99
Reviewed by Mark Blankenship ’05MFA

What if Melania Trump had spent her teenage years as a covert agent for the CIA? That’s essentially the premise of Our American Friend, though novelist Pitoniak changes her character’s name to First Lady Lara Caine. But while that hook might get attention, the book’s thinly veiled references to the recent administration are much less interesting than its twisty, decade-spanning tale of espionage.

With a page-turning flair for doling out delicious bits of information, Pitoniak filters the First Lady’s story through the eyes of an ambitious White House journalist named Sofie Morse, who gets a suspiciously wonderful offer to write Mrs. Caine’s biography. Things start benignly enough, with private lunches and charming visits with Lara’s children and mother. However, the more she learns about this woman, the deeper Sofie gets pulled into a world where goons lurk in the shadows and messages are delivered in code.

The cloak-and-dagger plot is artfully constructed, and the conclusion is surprising without feeling like a last-minute cheat. And perhaps most importantly, as we’re racing toward that ending, we also see how Lara and Sofie rewrite their moral codes in order to survive. Both women discover they’re capable of doing things they would have previously condemned, and we watch as they rationalize their behavior. The implications of their self-justification stick in the brain like a burr.

Would we do what they did, if given the chance? Could we convince ourselves it was just fine? Those questions feel bigger than any revelations about spies and the governments that need them.