A Woman of Intelligence – by Karen Tanabe – independent book review – Historical Fiction (U.S.)

Full Disclosure: I was given early access to this book in exchange for writing an impartial review. Scheduled publication, July 2021. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

A fast, engaging read about a smart, well-educated woman in 1950s New York City and her transition from career girl to marriage and motherhood. With a bit of Cold War thrown in.

World War II has recently ended and Rina (who speaks 4 languages) is lucky enough to land a job as a translator at the newly formed United Nations. There, she makes close friends, meets interesting people (like Ambassador Eleanor Roosevelt) makes a contribution toward a more peaceful world, and has plenty of time to date and socialize.

That is until she falls for Tom — a prominent, handsome, ambitious and fabulously wealthy pediatric surgeon who admires her intelligence, humor, and unique take on the world. Rina, aged 30 (old by 1950s standards) agrees to marry him. (Honestly, who wouldn’t?) And the two begin married life in a large apartment where Rina wears designer clothes, attends galas, and hob-knobs with the city’s elite.

As Rina slides increasingly into her husband’s world, she slowly realizes how much she has given up. So, when a federal agent says the government needs her language abilities to help fight communism (aka The Red Scare), how can she possibly say NO?

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, not wanting to spoil your read. In many ways, Rina is ahead of her time. In 1950s America, any woman questioning the “fulfillment” associated with the traditional roles of wife and mother would be suspect. Particularly to a husband. And especially when he’s prominent and rich, and maybe a bit spoiled. But, don’t worry, Rina finds some understanding, in surprising places.

In one sense, this feels like a coming of age story, even though Rina is in her 30s. It’s about a woman trying to figure out what truly makes her happy and what exactly she’s willing to risk to be happy.

The characters are multi-dimensional, the relationships realistic. And the plot is NOT predictable. A few things in this novel didn’t quite ring true to me. For example, professional women having lots of casual sex in an era before birth control pills when virginity was still prized. But perhaps that’s simply my own naive take about what was really happening in the 1940s and 1950s.

Karen Tanabe

More about the author, Karen Tanabe.