By Pam Jenoff
Atria Books. 303 pp. $22.99
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Katie Haegele
Jordan Weiss, a U.S. spy, has just left her post after finding out her boss lied to and betrayed her. Jobless, far away from her home in D.C., and alone as usual, she'd be feeling pretty set adrift right now if she didn't have a mission: To go scooting around Europe in search of Jared, the only man she ever really loved.
They met 10 years ago at Cambridge, where Jared was involved with a dangerous and secret research project. They were both rowers who shared a first "heated kiss on the balcony overlooking the Thames," and Jordan was devastated when she learned he had died in an accident before they graduated. But she recently got news that rocked her world. Jared didn't drown in the river all those years ago as she'd believed, but had faked his death and was still alive somewhere.
This was the story of Pam Jenoff's previous novel, Almost Home. In A Hidden Affair, Jordan sets out to find the guy and ask him a few questions.
Using her connections at State, she follows her one lead to Monaco, where she sits at a cafe and watches an apartment building across the street. In a steady stream of wealthy, well-tanned older folks, one elegant young blond woman stands out, and after tailing her, Jordan soon determines that the woman is in fact a link to Jared. From there we're off to a gritty neighborhood in Vienna, a vineyard near Trieste, and finally the coves and caves along the coast of Greece, where Jordan and Ari, a sexy, dusky dude she met along the way, try to track down the blond woman, each in search of something different.
The novel's atmosphere is appealing and, well, European, and the backstory is rich with dramatic possibility. But there's a corniness to the dialogue and plot progression that makes it hard either to take seriously or have fun with. The fact that the book is a sequel meant (and able) to stand on its own does account for some of the fill-in-the-blanks storytelling, but not for other hammy moments, the chills running down spines or Ari's "raw, masculine frame." Tropes like these have been merrily, knowingly used by thriller writers who get a kick out of their genre, but Jenoff, whose approach is both more earnest and more literal, doesn't seem to want to go there.
Still, some of the story lines are pretty special, and they might be different enough to keep you hooked. The international espionage, top-secret research, and cabal-like relationships at Cambridge are good, but actually it's the relationship between Israeli Ari and Jewish American Jordan that is far and away the novel's strongest element. Their shared heritage gives them an instant bond, and they have lively conversations about the State of Israel and its Palestinian conflicts. And as Ari's reason for tracking down Nicole, the mystery blonde, becomes more clear, their cultural history comes to the forefront in an even more interesting way.
The attractive but slightly shady Ari eventually reveals to Jordan that Nicole is involved with wine fraud, the illegal practice of passing off inferior wine as a more expensive vintage. When the two visit an old acquaintance of Ari's, a prominent Italian winemaker, for information that might lead them to her, they learn about how Jewish wine merchants hid their wares from the Nazis during the war. It turns out there's a remaining case of Bordeaux, a sort of holy grail of wines. From here, Jenoff cleverly folds in details about a war criminal who's still at large, making the search for Jared and Nicole much bigger than the personal task it was at the start.
It's too bad Jenoff didn't have more fun with this book, that she didn't give the whole thing a better personality. A Hidden Affair makes for smooth, pleasant reading, and some of the story's twists are downright cool. But it would have been stronger if the author had given her characters more depth and believability - or instead had given us readers a wink and let us know she was having a good time.