Need to Know by Karen Cleveland
Pub Date: January 23, 2018
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At first I was afraid a novel about Russian spies would be dry and overwhelmingly technical. Never fear with Karen Cleveland’s debut political thriller NEED TO KNOW. It’s hard to put down. The pace keeps pushing you forward through Vivian Miller’s first person perspective. Vivian is a mother of four, happily married to the seemingly perfect man, and she’s been assigned the best job a CIA analyst can get: Russia. Ballantine Books didn’t have to gamble too much in Cleveland as a debut author with this pitch. She also worked for years at the CIA and is a mother clearly with a talent for writing thrilling fiction.
I also worried that today’s political climate with evidence of Putin’s Russia fixing our 2016 Presidential election, that I would perhaps carry my real life anxiety over to my reading hours. I was fortunate. I was completely immersed in Cleveland’s version of the US and the metro DC area. I didn’t think I’d see Russia become our enemy again after we got past the 1980s, but here we are.
Vivian’s self doubt about every single choice she makes in life is heartfelt and honestly was tangible. I felt Vivian’s stress at work. I felt her stress at home. I understood her desire to want to believe the words spoken by people she cared for in her daily life.
There’s a mole in her office and the signs start to point directly back at Vivian. When her Top Secret software application called Athena finally breaks into a Russian’s computer, Vivian’s world is never the same again. She finds exactly what she set out to find: the identities of sleepers in Yury Yakov’s cell. Russians who have been in the states for so many decades that they blend in. They have jobs, families, retirement funds. All the things people are expected to have. Her findings are so painful when she recognizes one of the faces in the photos.
My breath is coming fast now. In my head I’m back in that coffee shop, sitting in that corner, reliving our first conversation, the one where we discovered how similar we were. He didn’t just play along, create a persona as he went. He was the first to say he was raised Catholic, that his mom was a teacher, that he had a golden retriever. He said it because he already knew it about me.
I raise a hand to my mouth and am vaguely aware it’s shaking.
The Russians weren’t lucky. They were thorough. Everything was intentional, planned. It wasn’t serendipitous at all.
I was his target.
You the reader will volley back and forth just as Vivian does with wanting to believe in the good in people. Everything comes to a head the moment Yury and his ringleader begin to threaten Vivian and Matt’s children. Viv may hate guns and spend long days behind a desk, but no one, absolutely no one gets away with threatening her children. She questions how she could be so naive trusting people. It begins to look like every single person she’s had in her life has crossed a line to betrayal — either against her directly or the country.
The questions and doubt keep right on coming all the way through the Epilogue to the last page. It’s magnificent in its portrayal of anxiety, stress, and I will caution here for sensitive readers: a flashback about a miscarriage.