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Red Joan by Jennie Rooney English Reading Groups Berlin Moderator--jan Bild

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Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

English Reading Groups Berlin ----Moderator----Jan Bild

Feedback from our meetings on 15th, 18th, 19th and 24th September

Red Joan

A „whydunnit “rather than a „whodunnit“.

From the beginning, we know that Joan has been a spy. A woman of 87, living an ordinary, quiet life in suburbia.Through flashbacks we learn her remarkable story, during five days of interrogation.

Cambridge University in 1937 is awash with ideas and idealists – to unworldly Joan it is dazzling.

After a chance meeting with Russian-born Sonya and Leo, Joan is swept up in their glamour and energy, and finds herself growing closer and closer to them both. Especially to the very idealistic Leo.

But allegiance is a slippery thing. Out of university and working in a government ministry with access to top-secret information, Joan finds her loyalty tested as she is faced with the most difficult question of all: what price should she pay to remain true to herself? Should she lie to protect her son?

Our Comments

Red Joan was very well crafted. I liked the style, how well I got to see Joan in her childhood, youth and then old age. She seemed very real and I liked her too.

I don’t normally like flashbacks in novels, but these worked and increased the tension.

Jennie Rooney uses the present tense throughout, even when describing the past, this made the scenes more immediate, I felt I was sharing her experiences.

We’ve all known men like Leo, idealistic and driven.. When we’re young they seem very exciting and glamorous. As we get older we look for different qualities in men, Joan is wise to choose Max as her husband. Most important of all, they can laugh a lot together.

I loved the passionate relationship between Leo and Joan. What is life without passion?

But it was rather one-sided, Joan was much more passionate about Leo than he was about her. Leo believed that love was emotion without intellect. Many men feel this way.

Unfortunately I was rather bored by the book. It was well written but there was no sense of danger, no suspense, no questions in my mind, it just wasn’t exciting enough for me.

It was quite a nice mystery, I was interested in all of the relationships.

Joan’s attraction to Leo and Sonya didn’t convince me.She was intelligent enough to see through them.

I was fascinated by the moral dilemma Joan faced. The circumstances she found herself in, convinced her she was doing her best for humanity.

I’ not a fan of spy stories as they always involve betrayal which upsets me terribly. Betrayal is one of the worst things I can imagine.

Sonya comes across as too evil. It wasn’t a pageturner, I started to skip some scenes.

Sonya had her reasons for her behaviour, her instincts were self preservation, her loyalty was only to herself.She did warn Joan not to trust anyone. But Joan trusted her because she seemd such a good friend.

I was horrified when Sonya virtually forced Joan to have an abortion. Then Joan was unable to have children. Sending Leo to his death in Russia, was this motivated by jealousy? If so, it was very extreme.

It was very interesting that it was based on a true story, Melita Norwood, who was 87 when she was discovered.But Melita had been a committed communist all her life , which Joan was not. Joan was more of a humanist, trying to protect the world from the threat of the atomic bomb being repeated..

The characters were too black and white. Max was too good to be true. Sonya was too bad and Leo was too idealistic. Joan was well developed as a character and I could believe in her, but she seemed so naive. Did she really think she could change the world?

I found it to be a totally convincing portrayal of an individual showing the clash of cultures in which she grew up, how she was out of kilter with her parents’ lifestyle, how unusual it was for a woman at that time to be so interested in science. She always remained true to her principles.

I loved the structure of the novel. I was totally gripped by the unfolding of her story. It was such a different take on a spy novel, focusing on the psychology of spying, what motivates an individual to choose to spy. For me, it was exciting and very gripping.

It was an excellent read. I could so easily see how Joan slid into the whole situation, she was so attracted by Leo and Sonya, drawn totally into their world. Then 60 years later it comes back to haunt her.

Shuold very elderly people be sent to prison? In Joan’s case she is allowed to remain at home, as long as she makes a public statement. She is no danger to society and would pose no threat to national security anymore. It’s a different case with Nazi war criminals, their crimes were so extreme in comparison..

I really liked it, though it was troubling for me why Joan did what she did.

Tracing her life from college until her move to Australia, I grew to understand her motivation. She refused to spy until the horror of Hiroshima. She felt she was doing the right thing to balance the power over nuclear weapons.

Political themes usually bore me but I was drawn into the personal ones and enjoyed those very much.

I got so involved with this book that I felt Joan’s pain physically. She was such a principled woman, I admired her very much. I got so tense on her behalf, my stomach tensed and cramped!!

I was so relieved when she told Max everything. I almost jumped with joy that they would be able to escape and have a life together. It was an absolutely gripping read.

We never know how we will react to situations until they happen. I loved the book, how it showed Joan’s thought processes, her gradual decision to act the way she did.

My heart went out to Joan’s mother, that Joan had to leave the country and never see her mother again. Her mother must have felt so abandoned, yet was very understanding.

As a Russian, I was rather disappointed to learn that my own country had had help with the development of the atomic bomb. I loved the book too.

It was very, very interesting as it posed lots of questions for me, particuarly. the history of the Hitler/Stalin treaty, why that was set up etc.

I found the love story too simple and romantic, it didn’t fit so well with the writing.

This for me was the best book chosen so far for the reading groups. I loved everything about it, especially the construction. We gradually get to know Joan from childhood , the influence of her family background, her university days and then adulthood. She seemed totally believable and I understood her motivations. I was very involved with the story and loved reading it.

Rooney builds the tension expertly. I was impressed by the way I became more and more intrigued by Joan’s story.

So many of the characters were interesting, especially Max. Would he really have been willing to go to Australia with a woman who had betrayed him and his country? To have given up his career as a research scientist? If so, he must have loved her very much indeed.

I liked the theme of the book, the responsibility of scientists to themselves and to the world. How loyal should one be to one’s own country? Just obey orders even when those orders are clearly wrong?

Sometimes you have to follow your conscience and not your country.

Are Snowden and Assange traitors? Probably not.

Joan’s relationship with her son Nick is very important to her. A successful judge, Nick has a lot to lose if she is outed as a spy. Much of the book focuses on the tension between them, his shock, disbelief, her attempts to explain her actions to him. As an obsessive, protective mother I cared deeply for her.

I wouldn’t care what my children thought of me! My decisions are my own business.

Using MI5 documents as background, we then are taken back to Joan’s past . Rooney interweaves the present day interrogation very well with the gradual revelation of Joan’s choices and the reasons for them.

The re-creation of the politics of the day is brilliantly portrayed, particularly attitudes at the time.

The rise of fascism was such a threat, Russia was an ally at the time,Joan wasn’t passing information to an enemy.In her mind, she was protecting the world. Her father had raised her to feel an individual responsibility to do the right thing, his death spurs her on to make her decision.

I admired Joan for keeping to her principles, to the very end.

Highly Recommended –

A sensitive and intelligent, unusual novel posing questions of morality, loyalty to family and country. Lots of topics to talk about, led to excellent discussions.

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