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Secret Father: A Novel (Carroll, James) Hardcover – August 13, 2003

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Product Details

  • Series: Carroll, James
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (August 13, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618152849
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618152841
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,326,237 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The heart of this fine novel, Carroll's first in nine years, is spelled out in the book's epigraph, a line from Dostoyevski: "Real love, compared to fantasy, is a harsh and dreadful thing." Seventeen-year-old Michael Montgomery, crippled by polio, lives with his banker father, Paul, in Frankfurt, Germany. Ulrich "Rick" Healy is Michael's rebellious best friend, son of an American general, David Healy, and his German wife, Charlotte. Katharine "Kit" Carson is Rick's girlfriend, also an army brat. The year is 1961 and all three attend the American high school in Wiesbaden. Rick, a budding socialist and leader of the three, decides they should cut school and travel to Berlin to attend the great May Day parade in the Eastern sector. The trip begins as a lark, but descends into chaos after their capture by East German police on trumped up currency-fraud charges. Paul and Charlotte race to Berlin to rescue their children, unaware that Rick is carrying a secret roll of film that if discovered could ignite World War III. Carroll writes with rich, lyrical ease: "Clusters of spring flowers in every color wore the beads of the recent rain like a dust of glass." His characters are richly drawn, and the pieces of his impeccably paced story fit together with the cool precision of a Mercedes-Benz. He plays the cards of his plot perfectly, each new element a revelation, leaving the reader hungrily turning the pages until the riveting story is told and the lesson is learned, that real love is indeed a harsh and dreadful thing. A few electrifying days prove enough to transform the lives of these fascinating characters-and the world-forever.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Carroll, author of the best-selling memoir An American Requiem (1996), returns to fiction with a cold war coming-of-age tale that captures both the particular tensions of the era and the universal yearnings of the young. Michael Montgomery is a 15-year-old American boy living in Frankfurt with his business executive father. A polio victim, Michael chafes under the restraint of both leg braces and his father's overprotective care (his mother's recent death is a constant source of unspoken grief between father and son). What better way for Michael to taste a little freedom than a verboten road trip to Berlin with his American school friends Katherine and Rick. Youthful rebellion turns serious when the teens are detained crossing into East Berlin (the Wall is days away from being erected). With an international incident threatened if Rick's stepfather's secret service connections are revealed, Michael's father and Rick's German mother rush to Berlin to intercede. There's much more to it than that, of course, and Carroll, telling the story in flashback through alternating narrators, ratchets the tension nicely while vividly evoking the cold war atmosphere and effectively contrasting the teens' naivete with the East Germans' realpolitik. Carroll's weakness for melodrama, apparent in his earlier novels, is noticeable here, too, especially in the personal relationships, but his page-turning readability provide satisfactory compensation. Entertaining popular fiction. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

James Carroll was raised in Washington, D.C., and ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as a chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguishedscholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast.

Customer Reviews

A very satisfying story!
Betty Hall Loomis
This is a first class effort, comparable to Furst's Dark Star and Ambler's A Coffin for Demetrios and the best of LeCarre.
Jonathan S. Holman
Found the plot confusing and not that interesting.
Oldie but goody

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan S. Holman on April 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
I think I have read every "spy novel" on the planet, from old Ambler to the current day. This is a special one.

First of all, Carroll is not a spy novelist, but rather a novelist who wrote here about spies. His development of character, use of language, and pacing all are quite distant from the likes of Robert Ludlum. Not that Ludlum isn't fine - I read him also - but Ludlum is about action and noise and not about characters or feelings. Think rather of John LeCarre but without LeCarre's depression, or Alan Furst but with more evolved characters.

Carroll uses a tried-and-true technique, with chapters moving back and forth between the viewpoint of the two primary characters. This is momentarily jarring the first time it happens but then slides nicely into place, no longer intrusive. The book flows well.

This is a first class effort, comparable to Furst's Dark Star and Ambler's A Coffin for Demetrios and the best of LeCarre. But it will make you think.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Ron Franscell, Author of 'The Darkest Night' on August 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
James Carroll has made a career of stories in which the grand sweep of history is summarized in the infinite choices of fallible and flawed people, and his first novel in nine years now becomes part of his intensely intricate oeuvre.
"Secret Father" blends the grandest drama of our time -- the Cold War -- with a journey by three idealistic and rebellious teenagers into the belly of the beast: Berlin at the height of the nuclear standoff and on the verge of building an insidious Wall.
The Berlin schism is both real and metaphoric as they revolt against their own families and the inevitable script of their lives. The strained relations between East and West become a perfect simulacrum for the ruptures between men and women, husbands and wives, sons and fathers.
It might be a story set more than 40 years ago, but it illustrates how differently -- and why -- Americans and Europeans see our world, and is published at a time when discussions of nation-building and America's role in the world are being debated.
"Secret Father" succeeds on many levels, some that the ardent anti-war activist Carroll intended, and some which hark back to earlier themes about the necessary relationships between fathers and sons. It is not a book for the casual espionage-lit buff who delights in Clancy-esque Cold War intrigues between cold-blooded Soviet agents and world-saving rogue CIA operatives. It's deeper and more meaningful.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Two families, two sons, and the devastating complications that engulf their lives during one weekend in April, 1961, provide a unique perspective on international gamesmanship in Berlin during the Cold War. These are tense times, border incidents are frequent, and the Berlin Wall is only days away from construction. At age seventeen, Michael Montgomery and Rick Healy are less concerned with the complications of the Cold War than they are with their rebellions against their fathers. Both are "trying on" new political ideas--in Rick's case, the idealistic goals of socialism and the philosophy of Marcuse.
In alternating sections, Paul Montgomery, the father, and Michael Montgomery, the son, each reveal their thoughts and hopes for the future, and as the story unfolds, Carroll creates two entirely separate worlds, each fully drawn and presented as truth. The reader, moving back and forth between the generations, has the advantage both of hindsight regarding the Berlin crisis and insight into all the characters, and the story comes alive in the best narrative tradition. When Michael, Rick, and their friend Katharine Carson decide to skip school and go to East Berlin for the May Day parade and weekend festivities, Rick takes his stepfather's duffle bag, which, unbeknownst to him, contains some important film. The ensuing turmoil, which traps them in the eastern sector, involves both families as they try to avoid a potential international cataclysm.
Through his focus on families affected by the Cold War, Carroll achieves more universality than one usually expects of the thriller genre. The emotional context he creates for the international intrigue leads the reader to identify with both the adults and the young people and to observe the "wall" existing between them.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Simon Crowe on December 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
SECRET FATHER is really two novels in one. First is an espionage thriller set in early 1960s Berlin, just before the Berlin Wall went up. Also, and more importantly, SECRET FATHER is a moving meditation on fathers and sons, and the things that make meaningful communication between them difficult.
The story concerns three teenagers:Michael Montgomery, Kit, and Ulrich (a German). They journey to East Berlin to see a May Day parade, flush with youthful energy. Michael and his father, an American banker, split narrative duties. Carroll cuts between the kids (betrayed and arrested) and Mr. Montgomery's alliance with Ulrich's mother to try to win their sons' freedom. Complicating matters are the fact that Ulrich's mother is now married to an American spy and that Ulrich now possesses a mysterious film cannister everyone seems to want.
The idea of fathers and sons knowing each other recurs throughout. The identity of Ulrich's real father is important, as is Michael's strained relationship with Mr. Montgomery. In a moving coda set just after the Wall falls in the '80s, Ulrich makes sure HIS son will know his father, even if he may not be around. Highly recommended.
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