After reading A Woman of No Importance, the non-fiction story of Virginia Hall, I was fully prepared to love The Invisible Woman, a novel based on Virginia’s life. Especially after just watching Black Widow and enjoying the downfall of a mediocre white man who controlled powerful women.
It’s good to remember that non-fiction can be just as powerful, if not more so, than fiction.
Let me back up, because I thought I had written about Virginia Hall before, but apparently I didn’t. Which is somehow both fitting and ironic, given the titles of the books about her.
Virginia Hall was the definition of a Mighty Girl (all right-thinking parents of daughters should check out that page). An American daughter of privilege who lost a leg during a hunting accident in Turkey, she became one of the most accomplished Allied spies during WWII, first with the British SOE, and then with the American OSS (the precursor to the CIA). She was basically Agent Carter, but in real life.
Despite being denied a career in the diplomatic corps because of her prosthetic leg, she was a force of nature in France during the war, both before and after full occupation by the Nazis. Jailbreaks, sabotage, espionage, even an escape on foot over the Pyrenees into Spain. She did what had to be done.
A Woman of No Importance detailed everything, following her epic path from her early days in the Foreign Service through the hunting accident and on to her two stints in France (that’s right; she went back even after a double agent burned her first network). It was powerful, it was relentless, and you could see why there are movies out and coming out about her. Everybody loves a good story where the Nazis lose.
Virginia Hall is basically who I would want my daughter to be; not for her wartime heroics, but for her indomitable spirit in the face of evil.
I started The Invisible Woman tonight. I’m 100 pages in, and I might not finish it.
Maybe it suffers from the fact that I know how the story ends. And I love the subject; the author clearly admires Virginia Hall. It’s not a bad novel.
But … it’s unsatisfying. And it feels a bit cheap in some ways.
The non-fiction A Woman of No Importance felt dramatic, epic, and clearly conveyed the stakes Virginia was facing. The Invisible Woman? Well, it feels like the author was trying to adapt her novel for the screen even as she was writing the novel.
Here are the biggest problems I have so far with the novel:
There’s a ton of expositional dialogue that doesn’t feel sincere, or which feels like over-earnest propaganda.
Now, to be fair, dialogue is hard. I know. All my attempts at fiction have fizzled because my dialogue is always insipid. And you know what they say: “Those who can’t do, blog about it.” But, a story this good almost tells itself, and the dialogue leaves the story feeling superficial at times.
It feels like it was written to be a movie, not to tell the story – and even then, it’s only trying to tell the story halfway through, picking up on Virginia’s return to occupied France.
Related to that, it feels like it’s leaning on cheap and inaccurate tricks to engender emotional depth; you shouldn’t need cheap tricks to root for someone the Nazis called ‘the most dangerous of Allied spies’. For instance, in the novel, it states Virginia had a broken engagement with a Polish soldier named Emil, a broken engagement which has so far haunted her through the story and which is blamed for her hunting accident. I can’t find any evidence he existed, and I find it difficult to believe that a woman capable of naming her prosthetic leg Cuthbert and walking over the Pyrenees with it, and who volunteered with a French ambulance service at the beginning of the war (before taking up the Spy Life) would be haunted by a broken engagement with a random Polish man.
And honestly, a random hunting accident claiming her leg, and then her persisting regardless, is far more interesting than implying she was hungover and pining for a man when the accident happened.
Assuming that I’m right, that the author wrote this novel with the big-screen in mind, who is more to answer for these weak tricks? The author, for lacking trust in the strength of the story as it stands alone? Or the society that might dictate that aspiring screenwriters force these watery, tepid elements where they don’t belong?
I’ll probably finish the novel, because I love Virginia’s story. But I won’t like it as much as the true facts. Sometimes life outstrips art’s attempt to capture its power.