Book Review: "Who Is Vera Kelly" Tells a Feminist Spy Story Through a Queer Lens

I don’t quite remember how I first heard about Rosalie Knecht’s Who is Vera Kelly?, but I do remember thinking it was the type of book I immediately wanted to pick up--so much so that I placed a library copy on hold within minutes of reading its description online.

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The publishers told it all: a part-spy-thriller, part-coming-of-age story set in both the east coast of the United States and Argentina during the 1950s and 1960s from a feminist, queer perspective.

The protagonist Vera Kelly, a.k.a “Anne Patterson” as her CIA alias, narrates her experiences through first-person reflection. Though fictional, she speaks as if she were giving a memoir-esque testimony to her life simultaneously as a self-reliant, strong-willed, and highly intelligent young queer woman living in New York City and as an older version of herself working undercover to infiltrate a group of suspected KGB student radicals in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

She narrates by volleying between these two time periods, roughly ten years apart, through short, 5-10 page vignettes. The audience almost plays spy with Vera: we are given sparse details about Vera’s life and simultaneously two separate yet unifying stories that culminate into the person Vera becomes at the end of the novel. These vignettes make the story a page-turner; just as we start getting into the meat of one specific section, we transition into a different country and different time period on the next page.

The language of the novel is relatively plain, unassuming, and subtle, yet never boring or lackluster as it moves us from scene to scene. It is reflective of Vera’s character: as inconspicuous and discreet as Vera herself moving through the world with a queer identity and hiding as a spy. These two themes, espionage and queerness, parallel each other. Knecht historicizes the novel by including researched details about the time and place of the novel and how they intersect with Vera’s identities. The novel places the reader smack-dab in Buenos Aires down to actual street names, slang, media, politics, and rebellious movements. After studying abroad in Buenos Aires, I enjoyed being able to recognize these places, people, and cultural tidbits (I actually lived on Avenida Rivadavia, which is often mentioned in the book and made me feel like an insider). Knecht also includes information about the consequences that women who resisted social expectations faced, such as teenage pregnancy, petty crime, being single at a certain age, or being queer in the United States.

Buenos Aires, circa 1950

Buenos Aires, circa 1950

We see through the challenges of being both lonely and alone, Vera struggles between searching to be independent and having no choice but to become independent. She actualizes her self-reliance in societies that do not completely accept her and relationships that often become unstable or turn out to be the opposite to how they initially appeared. Although Who is Vera Kelly? isn’t what you would call a thriller (though there are some edge-of-your-seat moments) and the ending could be tidier, I find this is an important addition to the spy/espionage literary repertoire. Overall, the novel deals with themes of truth, betrayal, irony, desire, ambition, survival, power, and ideology against the backdrop of two very different cultures and a protagonist trying to find where she belongs while incognito. I would recommend this book to readers interested in historical fiction, spy and espionage, feminist coming-of-age stories, and LGBTQ+ representations.

Rating: 4/5 stars