The Spy

The SpyThe Spy by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city. As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.

But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested and accused of espionage. Told in Mata Hari’s voice through her final letter, The Spy is the story of a woman who dared to defy convention and who paid the ultimate price.

My Review

I couldn’t get very far into this one before the details of rape and abuse were just too much. I picked The Spy up because I really enjoyed Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I thought with the uplifting and even Christian theme in that book certainly Coelho could tell the life story of a prostitute convicted of treason with some class and delicacy. Unfortunately, for me the first chapters of The Spy felt more like an excuse to romanticize sexual abuse rather than an effort to present truth, fact, or history.

“A Novel” is clearly printed on the front cover so I should have been expecting this to read like fiction, but because it’s main subject is the life of a real person I was expecting a more biographical feel.

The narrator in the introduction of the book sets up Mata Hari as a hero. Then in the first chapter Coelho begins to tell the story through Mata Hari’s own voice; unfortunately with the voice he gives her she comes off as completely selfish, even narcissistic. She certainly was a “broken” person which is understandable given the abuses she endured, but Coelho’s choice in presentation of her life events and her reactions to them left me unimpressed and sad. I didn’t feel like cheering for her as a hero; I felt pity that a traumatized woman didn’t get the help she deserved.

Through Coelho’s characterization of her, Mata Hari says, “My only crime was to be an independent woman.” I find it sad that Coelho would equate self-destructive choices from a victim of abuse with independence and heroism. Since I didn’t actually finish the book I guess it’s possible that the author actually finds her heroic for other reasons, but based on the first few chapters I was pretty sure his ideas of heroism and mine are very different. I don’t know much about Mata Hari (I had hoped this book would help me learn more), so I can’t really say whether she was heroic or not, selfish or not, but I don’t think Coelho’s book is going to give me an accurate picture of this complicated woman.

Age Recommendation: With the sexual content I would say this for mature adult readers.

Appropriateness: I found the author’s choice of how to present the sexual content very inappropriate and I would not recommend this book.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Mata Hari’s story I have found several nonfiction options on Goodreads that you should try before picking up this book. I am interested in reading Mata Hari: The Controversial Life and Legacy of World War I’s Most Famous Spy  by Charles Rivers Editors.

If you are interested in historical (or historically based) heroism I recommend The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, or Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

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