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Simon Mawer has always been able to tell a good story. His plots flow well, his descriptions are evocative, and his characters are engaging. But he is best when he has something else to add, as in MENDEL'S DWARF, which jumps to and fro between two different centuries, or THE GLASS ROOM, which takes place in a single house but over a century's span. His latest, TRAPEZE, is another story well told, but it treads familiar ground and has very little new to add.

The setting is WW2. The heroine, Marian Sutro (though she goes by many different names in the course of the novel), is young, beautiful, and bilingual, born of an English father and a French mother. Although barely out of school, she gets recruited by British Intelligence for training as a spy, and is parachuted into the southwest of France to help organize the resistance in that region, with the additional mission of contacting a French nuclear physicist in Paris to persuade him to come to Britain. The hook is that the scientist, Clément Pelletier, is an old childhood friend to whom she had a strong emotional attachment. For more even than being a spy story, TRAPEZE is a romance, as Marian must weigh her lingering crush on Clément against her first physical experience with a fellow agent in the south.

Why did Mawer, who is usually a much more sophisticated author, chose this subject? I seem to have been reading such books almost since WW2 ended; the most recent is CHARLOTTE GRAY by Sebastian Faulks, another spy romance of a very similar character. There is something stirring about the young innocent discovering strengths that she never knew she had; these are essentially coming-of-age stories under accelerated conditions. And there is something comforting to watch the slow unfurling of the tender heart, even under such conditions. Mawer's Marian Sutro is tougher than many of her literary forebears, and the plot has at least one unexpected twist. First-time readers may well warm to her and get caught up in her story. But it makes little sense for a modern author to retread a seventy-year-old genre without even a hint of contextual irony. Especially when the combination of spy-story and romance results in a lack of believability on both counts.
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on May 13, 2012
The Glass room was an excellent book. This one is not in the same league. Based on the description of this book, I thought I was going to be reading a spy novel. The story is about a young woman who is recruited to be a spy in France for the British during WWII. She has two love interests, one who she meets while going through spy training and one who she has known since she was a teenager. Too much of the story centers on 1) her maturing process as she is trained to be a spy and then goes to France to be a spy and 2) on how she struggles with her conflicted desires for the two love interests. The spying part of the story doesn't pick up in intensity until the last twenty percent of the book. This last part of the book is excellent but takes a lot of patience and perseverance to get there. Unlike The Glass Room, except for the heroine, the character development was poor. Throughout the story she is on an emotional roller coaster, one minute doing something very brave, the next minute crying.
If you are looking for an intense spy novel, you won't find it here.
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on October 10, 2012
I really liked the book, particularly toward the end, but the author failed to develop some of the relationships between characters that made subsequent events appear artificial. Besides that, it is a great spy story with a dramatic ending.

SPOILER ALERT -- some plot twists are revealed below but not the dramatic conclusion.

The relationship between the main character and both of her lovers were undeveloped, particularly her fellow commando. She went from "I don't want to parachute into France as a virgin" (never saying why) and immediately into bed with him and then giving him the cold shoulder in just a few paragraphs. He was clearly not a "one night stand" but someone she cared about--particularly as the story develops. I think the author could have given us just a bit more insight into her thinking. Even now, I don't know why it was so important that she not go back as a virgin. If it was an important point--tell us why. If not, don't confuse us.

Her relationship with her older professor lover was also undeveloped until nearly the end. Throughout the first half of the book she often gushes, "Clement" as if a prayer, but the exact nature of the relationship doesn't come through until nearly the end.

Finally, her relationship with France itself is not really developed until the end. Her final argument with Clement about doing something for France by going to England to develop an atomic bomb to help end the war is suddenly filled with a patriotism not previously shown, particularly since she is from Switzerland. Did she parachute into occupied France out of patriotism, for Clement, or for both? We don't really know until the last chapter.

Having said all that, I really liked the action sequences. Having lived in Paris for almost three years, I found the descriptions of particular sites spot on and the description of the constant stress living as a spy in the occupied city very believable. The book is worth reading just for these scenes.

Bottom line: could use some character development, but the action sequences and thrilling chase scenes are well-worth the price of this novel.
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on June 5, 2016
So much potential, difficult to say whether this book is really worth reading, as it is more like half a novel, the author has created a wonderful foundation in so many aspects, yet does his protagonist and his readers a disservice with a hasty conclusion and two broken promises.

Disappointing because the majority of the span of this story is so nicely rendered; then late in the game we are teased with an imminent payoff in the form of a planned mission, explicitly promised and involving a key character, but it is simply not included, it's sadly evident that the writer simply put in so much work in research and development and emotional investment that he couldn’t be bothered to do the work of writing a full third act.

It’s his choice to create an ironic ending, however in this case he’s obviously confused about his role, he dodges the responsibility of writing through the final sweep of the characters’ journey and simply chooses a kitschy, gratuitous and abrupt ending that yet again is evidence of writing fatigue, transparent and disrespectful.

If an author can lay the foundation, develop the nuances and build up momentum and suspense, establish a character web and bring us into the story, why not do the work of developing a complete story?

Finally, having implicitly promised the reader a tangible denouement, he pulls the rug out, apparently thinking that it will somehow appear graceful by subverting the expectation of a Hollywood ending, yet the conclusion we are offered after so much buildup is simply clumsy, lazy and cliché in its own pathetically abbreviated broad strokes, immensely disappointing after so much subtle literary underpainting.

As an avid reader of the works of John Le Carré, I can appreciate the artful subtext, the musical chairs, ambiguous genre sleight-of-hand, and an ironic, contrary or tragic conclusion, however Simon Mawer fails to meet that standard, since the ending must be earned, the material delivered in completion, and the organic arc, foundation and spine of the story satisfied, otherwise it is doubly disappointing by having to witness so much potential squandered.
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on June 13, 2012
Simon Mawer is such a wonderful writer! I loved his earlier book, The Glass House, and this one sounded really good, too. In a preface, he talks about French-speaking British women who were recruited by British Intelligence in WWII to be placed in France for various intelligence missions, with a small number being discovered and murdered right away, but a greater number managing to keep their cover and perform their tasks extremely well. This is the story of one such woman. The story is intimate, arresting and often quite harrowing. One of the best novels I've read about this period...you feel the main character's fear, experience her flashes of insight and intuition that save her from dangerous situations several times, and appreciate her all-too-human doubts and hesitations. Mawer captures the mood of uncertainty, fear and danger perfectly, and makes us feel the character's strengths and weaknesses in a very personal way. Highly recommended.
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on October 11, 2012
Trapeze was the best book I've read in years. Rarely will you find the English language used so beautifully in a book that carries the story to the final page. The author has great insight into that special time during WW11. The lead character, a young woman is perfectly framed. Other characters are always believable. I immediately went looking for more from this author.
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on October 6, 2012
Trapeze gives the reader insights on a brave corps of English patriots who were parachuted into occupied France in order to aid the resistance and provide intelligence to the British government. My only disappointment was the ending, which seemed abrupt and without explanation, although the spies were well prepared for such an end to their activities. I recommend this book.
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on February 7, 2017
The plot moves along at breakneck speed....this man can really write! I'd just finished his novel "The Glass Room," a serious book which I admired. This is the best sort of escape reading... meticulous attention to the details of spy craft that never gets in the way of the narrative drive.
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on December 16, 2012
I enjoy reading books about WWII and this book did not disappoint. It is about a female special operations executive and her journey into the life of a british undercover agent. I thought that the authors descriptions of the day to day life and not just the training added extra appeal. It allowed you to really identify with Marian and uderstand her thought process. This novel was fast paced and as far as I could tell a fairly realistic portrayal of what these men and women would have gone through. The ending was realistic and thought provoking, and I appreciate that. It is always nice to finish a book feeling like you have grown a little emotionaly and intellectually.
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on May 31, 2014
Sebastian Faulks’ “Charlotte Gray” remains the gold standard of novels about British women helping the French Resistance during World War II, but Simon Mawer wins the silver with his fast-paced, well-researched “Trapeze.” The story’s major beats are familiar: the heroine’s chance recruitment, arduous preparations, perilous insertion, snatched romance, meticulous tradecraft, near disasters, eventual completion. Mawer’s heroine, Marian, is self-doubting yet staunch in combat, virginal yet all too easily involved.

It’s the autumn of what appears to be 1943, and Marian’s mission as a Special Operations Executive agent is to contact a French nuclear scientist in Paris and get him onto a plane for England, so he can help build an atomic bomb. Pre-war, this pair were almost lovers, and might be again. The atomic angle isn’t so far-fetched, since bomb theories were published even before the war, and French scientists were in the forefront of atomic research, starting with the Curies.

Marian’s hesitations and doubts are a little overdone, and the climax can be interpreted as a letdown. But overall “Trapeze” delivers, and enthusiasts of French slang will be especially gratified. The familiar ambiguous landscape of wartime France is convincingly evoked, as in comments like “…the whole damn country with its sullen acceptance of its fate, resignation that leaks over into accommodation and becomes, when you looked away for a moment, collaboration.” Though slightly below the highest level, “Trapeze” proves why this time and this place continue to fascinate readers and moviegoers.
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