- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
I finished Jennifer Niven’s World War II novel “Becoming Clementine” (Plume, published by the Penguin Group, original paperback, 368 pages, $15.00) as the sordid details of what I’ve come to think of as Petraeus-Gate were being revealed to a world with a seemingly limitless desire for salaciousness.
The downfall of the Director of Central Intelligence — heavily decorated four-star Army general David Petraeus — and, possibly, John R. Allen. the Marine Corps four-star general who succeeded Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan, left a nasty taste in my mouth.
Guys, guys,guys! The zipper works both ways! Soccer Mom Femme Fatales: control yourselves around those hunky, fruit salad laden generals!
The whole sordid scandal made me appreciate Niven’s spunky, fearless heroine Velva Jean Hart, her missing in action brother Johnny Clay Hart, French resistance fighter Émile, Helen and the other women from WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots, civilian women flyers who ferried planes, freeing male pilots for combat) and the other noble characters in “Becoming Clementine” all the more. They fought the good fight in post-D-Day Nazi occupied France. They witness the atrocities of the Germans occupying France and fought back as best they could.
The third book in Niven’s Velva Jean Hart series — after “Velva Jean Learns to Drive” and “Velva Jean Learns to Fly” — “Becoming Clementine” will appeal to readers familiar with authors like Alan Furst and Sarah Blake and books like “Suite Francaise” and “The Postmistress” — books that faithfully re-create a bygone world.
Velva Jean Hart, from the mountains of North Carolina, is transformed into Clementine Roux, the American widow of a young French soldier, in the course of a mission in occupied France, just after D-Day, June 6, 1944.
After delivering a B-17 Flying Fortress to Britain, Velva Jean Hart, 22, a trained pilot in the real-life WASP, volunteers to copilot a plane carrying special agents to their drop spot over Normandy. Her personal mission: to find her brother, Johnny Clay Hart, who is missing in action. Their plane is shot down, and only she and five agents survive. Now they are on the run for their lives.
As they head to Paris, Velva Jean Hart becomes Clementine Roux, a daring woman on an epic adventure with her team to capture an operative known only as “Swan.” Once settled on Rue de la Néva, Clementine works as a spy with the Resistance and finds herself falling in love with her fellow agent, Émile, a handsome and mysterious Frenchman with secrets of his own.
When Clementine ends up in the most brutal prison in Paris, trying to help Émile and the team rescue Swan, she discovers the depths of human cruelty, the triumph of her own spirit, and the bravery of her team, who will stop at nothing to carry out their mission.
The book is replete with details of life in Nazi occupied Paris, including Velva Jean as Clementine seeing a performance of the play “Antigone” by Jean Anouilh. I looked it up and learned that the play, inspired by the 5th century B.C. play of the same name by Sophocles, premiered on Feb. 6, 1944, and that it was written by a writer, who, like Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and many others remained in Paris after France’s 1940 defeat and continued to work under Nazi occupation. It’s a myth that most of the French resisted the Nazis: the vast majority got along by going along, surviving day to day, and even collaborating with the German occupiers.
From the Wikipedia entry on the play: “The play was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Atelier on February 6, 1944, during the Nazi occupation. Produced under Nazi censorship, the play is purposefully ambiguous with regard to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon). The parallels to the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation are clear, however.”
“Becoming Clementine” is crammed with tradecraft of the era’s spy shops, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — the predecessor of the CIA — and Britain’s super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Although the publishers say the book is for those 18 and above, I think Y.A. readers will enjoy it, too. I pictured Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence (“X-Men” and “The Hunger Games”) as a likely Velva Jean/Clementine if the book is filmed. I have no doubt she could do a fine job with Velva Jean’s Appalachian accent! And she’s the right age.
There’s an online Reader Guide at www.penguin.com, making this novel ideal for book clubs.
About the Author
Jennifer Niven’s first book, “The Ice Master”, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year byEntertainment Weekly. Her second book, “Ada Blackjack”, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick. Her memoir, “The Aqua Net Diaries”, was optioned by Warner Bros. Her bestselling debut novel, “Velva Jean Learns to Drive”, was followed by the sequel “Velva Jean Learns to Fly”. She lives in Los Angeles. Her website:www.jenniferniven.com