Cover image of "Our Woman in Moscow," a novel about American defectors in Moscow

In May 1951 two senior British Foreign Office officials disappeared. They surfaced again five years later in Moscow, having defected to the Soviet Union. It soon came to light that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were among a number of Cambridge University undergraduates who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and enlisted as agents for the NKVD. Later, they and their colleagues—Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—were dubbed the Cambridge Five. Operating unscathed for as long as two decades, they betrayed many of the UK’s most closely guarded secrets. As Beatriz Williams points out in the Author’s Note to her novel, Our Woman in Moscow,, “their names are as synonymous with treason as Benedict Arnold’s is in the United States.” In her story, Williams imagines American defectors in Moscow during the same era.

Williams loosely bases her book on the circumstances of Donald and Melinda Maclean’s contentious marriage. But I emphasize the word “loosely,” since most of the major players in the story are American, not British. (Guy Burgess alone appears in the story, although a senior officer of MI6 does play a role as well.) For Williams, the central characters are the Macallister twins, Ruth and Iris, both Americans, and Lyudmila Ivanova, an NKVD counterespionage officer. The story advances through alternating chapters from the perspective of each of the three women in turn. And the scene frequently shifts from 1940 to 1948 to 1951 and back again.

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams (2021) 444 pages ★★★★☆

Composite image of the Cambridge Five, British defectors in Moscow
The Cambridge Five loom in the background in this story of Soviet espionage during and after World War II. These five Cambridge-educated men all defected to the Soviet Union, having spied against Britain and the US for decades. Image: Tradecraft

A Communist who “comes from money”

Ruth Macallister, a former fashion model, runs a New York modeling agency. She’s the more assertive and outgoing of the twins. But her sister, Iris, falls for a handsome and charismatic US Foreign Service officer called Sasha Digby. (His real name, we learn, is Cornelius Alexander Digby III.) Sasha is the son of a Texas oil executive. In fact, it turns out that all the Americans in the story “come from money.” They all fit neatly into the stereotypical WASP mold. But it quickly becomes clear that Sasha is a dedicated Communist, and he carelessly lets slip to Iris and her friends that he spied for Russia during World War II—and apparently continued to do so after the war.

Defectors in Moscow and the NKVD

By 1951, Sasha, Iris, and their three children have been living as defectors in Moscow for three years. Enter FBI agent Charles Sumner Fox, a former star fullback on the Yale football team with the physique to match. Taking Ruth into his confidence, he persuades her to travel to Rome as his “wife” to extract the Digby family and return them to the United States. Meanwhile, Lyudmila watches developments in Moscow from NKVD headquarters, suspecting Sasha’s loyalty and Ruth and Sumner’s intentions. As events gallop toward a conclusion, the three women at the center of the story advance toward an explosive meeting.

Williams writes well. She builds suspense throughout, increasing the expectation of a climactic ending as the story unfolds. Expect surprises along the way.

About the author

Image of Beatriz Williams, author of this novel about defectors in Moscow
Beatriz Williams at home in Connecticut. Image: New York Times

American author Beatriz Williams writes historical fiction. Our Woman in Moscow is her seventeenth novel. The first was published in 2012, so she has turned out nearly two books every year. Williams holds degrees from Stanford and Columbia universities. She worked as a communications and corporate strategy consultant in New York and London before she turned her attention to writing novels. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and four children.

For more reading   

Check out Defectors by Joseph Kanon (A superb new novel about defectors in Moscow), The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming (A stellar new spy story by Charles Cumming), and A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre (Was Kim Philby the greatest spy ever?).

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