July 20, 2021
Karin Tanabe
St. Martin's Press
Historical Fiction
Hardcover, 384 pages
"A layered and engrossing Cold War historical...This would be perfect for a film or TV series."
-Publisher's Weekly, starred review 
From "a master of historical fiction" (NPR) comes, an exhilarating tale of post-war New York City, the story of one woman’s journey from the United Nations, to the cloistered drawing rooms of Manhattan society, to the secretive ranks of the FBI.

A Fifth Avenue address, parties at the Plaza, two healthy sons, and the ideal husband: what looks like a perfect life for Katharina Edgeworth is anything but. It’s 1954, and the post-war American dream has become a nightmare. A born and bred New Yorker, Katharina is the daughter of immigrants, Ivy-League-educated, and speaks four languages. As a single girl in 1940s Manhattan, she is a translator at the newly formed United Nations, devoting her days to her work and the promise of world peace—and her nights to cocktails and the promise of a good time.

Now the wife of a beloved pediatric surgeon and heir to a shipping fortune, Katharina is trapped in a gilded cage, desperate to escape the constraints of domesticity. So when she is approached by the FBI and asked to join their ranks as an informant, Katharina seizes the opportunity. A man from her past has become a high-level Soviet spy, but no one has been able to infiltrate his circle. Enter Katharina, the perfect woman for the job. Navigating the demands of the FBI and the secrets of the KGB, she becomes a courier, carrying stolen government documents from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan. But as those closest to her lose their covers, and their lives, Katharina’s secret soon threatens to ruin her.
Dear Reader, 

Many unexpected things happen when you become a parent. For me, the defining experience was postpartum depression, marked not by sadness but by rage, and a severe loss of identity. It was in this state that I pitched my sixth book. “The only thing I can write authentically right now is motherhood,” I said. “I want to write a mother who has lost herself and becomes a hitman for hire.” (Did I mention I had a lot of rage?). 
Luckily, my editor moved me away from gun-slinging, but the itch to capture a female experience constrained by societal expectations remained. We talked about the contrast between World War II and the Cold War; how women who came of age in the 1940s would have experienced a kind of whiplash: essential wartime workers who were then forced back into a narrowly prescribed domestic existence, all in the span of a decade––and all in service of the American dream.

With the idea of Cold War conservatism brewing, I uncovered the story of Elizabeth Bentley, who became a Soviet spy, then flipped allegiances and dished it all to the FBI. Though now largely forgotten, she was once known as the Red Spy Queen and was a political star of her day. I loved the idea of giving an unexpected woman—a seemingly staid wife and mother––a secret life in the intelligence community. A life that brings her more joy than her family does, and ultimately serves as her salvation. 
I also considered the things that had helped me find my way again: the glamour of New York City, recognition for professional accomplishments, the sensation of being truly seen by someone besides your spouse, and a refusal to let the laughter die. At a dinner party, a guest tells my heroine, Katharina Edgeworth, “I do enjoy your company. That depressed woman’s humor of yours is very droll.” Droll, it turns out, can be a very good antidote to rage. 

Above all else, I painted the America I know and love: one defined by its diversity, by both first-generation Americans who speak many languages, and the well-off who aren’t your average Mayflower descendants. I zeroed in on 1954 when the McCarthy hearings were burning up television sets, the Civil Rights movement was gaining traction, and women were beginning to understand that the American dream could just as easily become a nightmare. Though I set out to capture the 1950s, many of these themes might sound familiar today: we are still struggling for civil rights, motherhood continues to define women, and I, just like my main character, am still fighting to rediscover myself. 

In the end, A Woman of Intelligence is inspired by two true stories: Elizabeth Bentley’s and mine. 


Karin Tanabe
Book Club Menu
A Woman of Intelligence takes place in New York City, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of food featured from all over the world. From dim sum restaurants to French bistros, the book’s main character, Katharina (Rina) Edgeworth, eats her way around the globe.

Some of the most enjoyable food scenes to write about took place at a Ukrainian restaurant. Rina has an opportunity to spy on a high-level KGB officer, and on their first day together they have lunch and eat a delicious dessert called sochniki, cookies filled with sweetened cheese. The Ukrainian man, Jacob, reflecting on Rina’s past says, “Plus one husband and minus sochniki. How are you still with us?” As in, how can you go on without this delicious dessert! I made the cookies while I was writing, with a recipe from MomDish.com. They are delicious!

I modeled the restaurant where Rina and Jacob eat at a restaurant in New York City, Ukrainian East Village Restaurant (also known as Ukrainian National Home). The restaurant in the book is in an office building just like this one and has the same “grandma’s house” décor. The food here is amazing! 

When I was writing A Woman of Intelligence I interviewed a wonderful woman who worked in publishing in Manhattan in the mid-1950s and I asked her what she drank. Her answer: “Gin. Anything with gin.” She inspired the line in the book: “Gin martinis, gin and tonics—anything with gin would do.” My favorite gin martini recipe: 2 1/2 ounces gin, 1/2 ounce dry vermouth (or to taste), 1 dash orange bitters (optional), and a lemon twist or 1-3 olives, for garnish.

*Gin Martini
*Tavern Cobb Salad
*Cheese Fondue 
Tavern on the Green, the classic Central Park restaurant, plays a big role in the book. Rina, spent a lot of time there before she had children, but later, as a mother, she only has time to view it from the outside and envy the people eating there. The Tavern Cobb Salad, with romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, tomato, deviled eggs, scallions, crumbled smoked bacon, blue cheese, avocado, and red wine vinaigrette, is my favorite thing to eat at Tavern on the Green. Who doesn’t’ love a salad that is basically a cheese and charcuterie plate with the word “salad” in it to trick us all! 

The book’s main character, Katharina Edgeworth, is Swiss. Though she grew up in America, she often misses her family’s Swiss home cooking, including cheese fondue. In the novel, she discusses Swiss food: 

“We were a family who used a pile of books as a coffee table and had puzzles with dozens of pieces missing. A family that didn’t have a cocktail hour, just cocktails. A family who spoke many languages and ate a shocking amount of beige food. Northern Europeans have really perfected the art of beige cuisine. Cheese fondue. Beige. Rösti. Beige. Bűndner Nusstorte. Beige.”

She reflects on the fact that the Swiss eat a lot of bland-colored food, but I promise that cheese fondue is anything but bland! I use the Food and Wine recipe when I make it.

-Karin Tanabe
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