Novel: Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

Need to Know (2018), Karen Cleveland’s debut spy novel, is blurbed to high heaven with praise. While it certainly has its strengths and I can see the appeal, overall I was underwhelmed. Told in close-in, first-person narrative, it details the plight of Vivian Miller, an analyst with the CIA tasked with uncovering a network of Russian sleeper agents in the United States. Vivian is shocked when her work uncovers dark secrets about her beloved husband Matthew, with whom she has four children. It turns out Matthew has been lying to her about his past, and the truth may threaten to blow apart Vivian’s career, her family, and her life.

A former CIA analyst herself, Cleveland brings a keen eye and brisk pace to her debut thriller, which reminded me a little of The Americans in its use of spy fiction tropes in a family drama context. The prose is slick and accessible, blazing along crisply and cinematically. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to connect with Vivian, whose intense devotion to conventional family values leads her to make all the impulsive mistakes necessary to propel the plot. Additionally, for the most part its twists and cliffhangers failed to surprise. The novel does perform a deft balancing act as Vivian’s wavering perceptions keep the reader guessing as to whether Matthew is innocent or a gaslighter, giving the novel an intriguing subtext about abusive relationships. It’s interesting, adept, and might make a great vehicle for the right actress if Hollywood comes calling, but ultimately this one’s a little unsatisfying.

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