Book Review for “The Lipstick Bureau” by Michelle Gable.
Summary: “1944, Rome. Newlywed Niki Novotná is recruited by a new American spy agency to establish a secret branch in Italy’s capital. One of the OSS’s few female operatives abroad and multilingual, she’s tasked with crafting fake stories and distributing propaganda to lower the morale of enemy soldiers. Despite limited resources, Niki and a scrappy team of artists, forgers and others—now nicknamed The Lipstick Bureau—find success, forming a bond amid the cobblestoned streets and storied villas of the newly liberated city. But her work is also a way to escape devastating truths about the family she left behind in Czechoslovakia and a future with her controlling American husband. As the war drags on and the pressure intensifies, Niki begins to question the rules she’s been instructed to follow, and her heart leads her in an unexpected direction. But one step out of line, one mistake, could mean life or death….”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, Italy – Rome (mostly), Contemporary, New York; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, WWII, Dual Timelines.
Goodreads notes that our protagonist here is loosely base on the real-life OSS operative Barbara Lauwers, who, from the authors notes, was Gable’s own grandmother. Okay, so that’s pretty cool, right? I mean, what author wouldn’t love to have a real relative who had such an auspicious and intriguing history? I’m actually surprised that it took Gable 13 years after her grandmother’s passing to write this story. yes, I know, my own family’s real-life mystery has been bouncing around my head (and some on paper) for longer than this, but Gable has been publishing for a few years now. Granted, her first books are more romance, but I now see she also wrote an historical, biographical, women’s fiction novel about Nancy Mitford as well. So, maybe she’s just moving towards more literary works and further away from romance since her debut work.
Now, some of my readers will note that I mention above that there are two timelines here. Yes, there are, but the more modern bits are few and far between, which I think is a good thing. Also, instead of the modern part setting up a mystery or secret from the past to be delved into, it serves more to fill in a few blanks about what happened after the major part of the historical story ends. Again, this is a very good example of how to use more than one timeline without one of the eras feeling unnecessary or forced. Instead, what we get is a point in time that directly connects to Niki’s past – a dinner to celebrate the women of the OSS. At that dinner, she’s accompanied by her daughter, who learns through that some details she never knew about what her mother did during the war, as well as what happened afterwards. I felt this was very well executed, and kudos to Gable for pulling this off.
I have to say, however, that as I was reading this, I kept thinking that Niki felt a touch too modern for my taste. Okay, so she was a firecracker to begin with, but in many cases, she felt a bit too bold for her own era, even for someone as unconventional as Niki. However, when I found out that Niki was loosely based on the author’s real-life grandmother, I realized that no small part of Gable’s portrayal probably came from her own memories of the woman, as well as what her own mother probably told her. Now, if the war-time Niki was actually as eccentric as Gable and her mother probably witnessed for themselves, is still a bit of a question. Still, I’m guessing that someone who worked in “Morale Operations” (the euphemism they used for the unit that wrote and spread anti-Nazi propaganda behind enemy lines), was no shy, retiring, wallflower, even back in the day.
This is the first of Gable’s books I’ve read, and I have to say that on the whole, I was pretty impressed. The story flowed very nicely and Gable’s prose was solid without being stiff, with just a touch of romantic language here and there, to keep it from feeling sterile. Yes, we do get to witness a bit of romance for Niki but nothing that was sappy at all. Niki was, beyond a doubt, very single minded in what she considered to be a good war effort, and any male companionship would always take a back seat to that. More importantly, I not only admired and respected Niki for all she did, I also liked her a whole lot. In fact, I would have liked to have met Barbara Lauwers in person. She must have been a real hoot at family gatherings! This is why I truly enjoyed this novel, and I can very warmly recommend it, with a very handsome (and slightly cheeky) four and a half stars out of five.
Graydon House Books released “The Lipstick Bureau” by Michelle Gable on December 27, 2022 (although some sites say it will only come out in January 2023 in the US). This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Blackwell’s, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.