State of ambivalence

I just finished reading State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, and am incredibly conflicted about it.

There are many pros and cons to this book (and this collaboration), and when I look back on it long-term I’m really not sure which will hold sway.

On the positive side, this was a viable thriller, with a believable set-up, a fast pace, and lots of plot twists, and presents a terrifying vision of where the extreme political divide in this country may lead us. It held my attention in the sense of hanging in there to find out what would happen next. The characters were interesting and mostly well developed, some better than others. I liked the concept that the heroine of a political thriller could be a slightly frumpy older woman using her wits and her life experience instead of a Daniel Craig type with rock-hard abs and karate skills. I enjoyed the bond between Secretary of State Ellen Adams and her best friend and counselor, Betsy. I thought the estrangement from her son was a smart plot point. And the story itself was, in light of the January 6th “insurrection” of last year, all too believable, particularly as more behind-the-scenes intel comes to light. I could definitely see things taking this radical turn in the upper echelons of government, and found myself hoping that Ms. Clinton was still in the realm of fiction and not writing from life!

Both the influence and the writing style of Louise Penny were definitely detectable; she was a good choice as collaborator. There’s a huge gap between writing nonfiction and memoir as Clinton has successfully done before and jumping to fiction, especially fiction with a complex plot, and I’m sure Penny’s contribution was massive. I also imagine that the two of them had a good time working on it together. But the thing I didn’t like was the Easter egg, as some are calling it, of the involvement of Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. It didn’t feel like a natural intrusion, but rather an unnecessary sop thrown to her fans to get them more interested in this book. Some people saw it as a courtesy to Penny’s participation, but I was, frankly, a little surprised that she agreed to it. That features is one of my cons, and here below are the rest of them. And I hasten to say that these are completely personal cons, not necessarily related to the book itself, but rather to my response to it.

First of all, I found it distracting in the extreme that it was written about a Secretary of State by a former Secretary of State. Yes, I know that the whole point was to give credibility to the story line and background by providing concrete details of the job that only someone who had done it could know; and that was, indeed, effective. But, knowing what I knew, I found myself dragged again and again out of the story itself by my brain speculating on what parts might be true—thinly veiled fact rather than made-up story-telling—and this was the case for a lot of the details of the book. My knowledge of who was writing it kept interfering with my simple enjoyment of what was, in fact, a pretty compelling narrative. Ellen Adams was working for a President with whom she was adversarial; was that Clinton’s experience with Obama? Not to my knowledge, but I kept getting jerked out of the story to wonder. Former President Dunn was a doppelganger of our most recent former Resident, but I kept waffling on whether she had made him heinous enough to be the Guy in Chief in question, and this conflicted with my belief that maybe she should have just left 45 out of it. And although I was intrigued by her depictions of most of the heads of state with whom she met, I felt that in the instance of the Russian she relied too much on a caricature of the real guy, slightly trivializing the story at a crucial juncture. (I should make the point here that has been “liberally” shared on Goodreads—that if you like HRC you will probably enjoy reading this book, while if you loathe her and/or are a Republican, you definitely won’t!)

All of this in-my-head stuff made this book compelling but not quite immersive. But as I said at the start, I can’t find too much fault with it as a legitimate political thriller with good characterizations, a believable (and frightening) plot, and an exciting pace. My best advice is to try to read it on its own merits without speculating about the back story, if you find that possible. I did not, but I’m hoping for the success of the book that I am in the minority, because it looks from the ending like there may be a successor.

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