A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the O.S.S. by Jennet Conant, narrated by Jan Maxwell
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Julia Child is best known as a famous American chef cooking French food. Before she knew how to make the perfect omelet, though, she was a member of the O.S.S., an intelligence agency that was the precursor to the CIA. It was actually in this agency that she met her husband Paul, while both of them were serving in the Far East. It is that period of time, from their work in the O.S.S. through their courtship on which A Covert Affair focuses.
Thoughts on the story:
I must admit that I felt slightly misled by A Covert Affair. It purports to be the story of Paul and Julia during their time in the O.S.S., but having listened to it, that is not at all how I would classify it. In my opinion, A Covert Affair looks at the O.S.S. during the war, and its place in the McCarthyism that subsequently overtook the sanity of America. In order to avoid having a 3,000 page treatise on the agency, Conant uses the Childs as a way to frame the story she wanted to tell. The audiobook opens and closes with the Childs post-war, with Julia working on her cookbook and Paul called back to the United States so his loyalty can be questioned. In the course of the questioning, the name of their O.S.S. acquaintance Jane Foster came up over and over.
It is Jane’s story that seems to be the real heart of the book. Her life with the O.S.S. is much more closely examined, from the time she signed up, through her exploits taming wild animals, to an affair of hers and her post-war marriage. Always somewhat of a leftist, and not particularly discreet, it is no surprise that she came to the attention of HUAC during the years of the Red Scare.
A Covert Affair does then close again with the Childs and their shock at the things Jane Foster is accused of, but it seemed like they were a convenient way for Conant to sell the book, with the recent interest in all things Julia after the popularity of Julie and Julia. I admit to falling into this popularity trap, it is why I wanted to listen to A Covert Affair, and why I listened to My Life in France last year.
All that being said, however, once I got over the fact that I felt a little duped, I realized that Conant did have a very interesting story to tell. In fact, I think it is quite likely that Jane is a more interesting focus during the O.S.S. years than either Paul or Julie would be. In addition, the way the story concludes makes me glad I knew so much about Jane and made it begin to feel that I had been told the story of the Childs experience with the O.S.S., if not exactly their time there.
Thoughts on the audio production:
Jan Maxwell does a very good job with the narration of A Covert Affair. She is one of those no-nonsense narrators who avoid getting overly dramatic, but simply tells the story in front of her with poise – and with enough inflection to keep the story engaging.
I remain unconvinced that A Covert Affair‘s subtitle Julia Child and Paul Child in the O.S.S. is an accurate depiction of the contents of the book, but there is a very interesting story there that deserves an audience. If you are extremely interested in the history of US intelligence, pick this up in print so you can pore over the details. If you’re more interested in a sketch of the O.S.S. and the place of the Childs and their friends, pick it up in audio to keep the story moving engagingly. As long as you aren’t reading or listening solely for news of Julia and Paul, you won’t be disappointed.
Check out Simon & Schuster’s page to listen to a sample of the audio
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