Spotlight on “Ilium” by Lea Carpenter

by LitStack Editor

Brilliantly compelling, Ilium is a spellbinding and unexpectedly poignant story of a long-planned, high-stakes CIA-Mossad operation that only needed the right asset to complete.

Ilium and author Lea Carpenter

Set in the dark world of international espionage, from London to Mallorca, Croatia, Paris, and Cap Ferret: the gripping and suspenseful story of a young woman who unwittingly becomes a perfect asset in the long overdue finale of a covert special op.

The young English narrator of Lea Carpenter’s dazzling new novel [Ilium] has grown up unhappily in London, dreaming of escape, pretending to be someone else and obsessed with a locked private garden. On the eve of her twenty-first birthday, at a party near that garden, she meets its charismatic and mysterious new owner, Marcus, thirty-three years older, who sweeps her off her feet. Before long they are married at his finca in Mallorca, and at last she has escaped into a new role—but at what price? On their honeymoon in Croatia, Marcus reveals there is something she can do for him—a plan is in place and she can help with “a favor.”

This turns out to be posing as an art advisor to a family on Cap Ferret, where Marcus asks her to simply “listen.” A helicopter deposits her at a remote, highly guarded and lavishly appointed compound on a spit of land in the Atlantic. It’s presided over by an enigmatic, charming patriarch Edouard, along with his wife Dasha, children Nikki and Felix, and populated by a revolving cast of other guests—some suspicious, some intriguing, perhaps none, like her, what they seem.

A young woman learns her new husband is a spy intent on recruiting her for a dangerous mission in this anemic slow-burn from Carpenter (Red, White, Blue). The book’s unnamed British narrator—who tells much of the story in flashback from middle age—is an aimless 20-year-old when she meets Marcus, a wealthy 50-something American who proposes marriage shortly after the pair falls into a whirlwind romance. 

On the couple’s honeymoon in France, Marcus confesses he’s dying, and solicits the narrator’s help with a “project.” He then introduces her to Raja, a fellow intelligence officer who asks the narrator to pose as an art dealer and dine at a “dear friend’s” Cap Ferret compound. After the narrator follows instructions to observe the conditions and report back, Raja enlists her participation in the “last act” of a nine-year, multi-agency plot to catch the compound’s owner—a former Russian general planning the assassination of U.K.-based American assets. 

Much of the story is framed as the narrator’s reflection on her long-ago induction into the “secret world” as an unwitting pawn, and while Carpenter wrings some pathos out of that conceit, her narrative elides too much and holds readers at too great a remove to truly captivate. Espionage fans are likely to find this disappointing.

Nearly 21, the never-named woman who narrates the novel is targeted by Marcus, a worldly, jet-setting American who happens to own the private garden she spent hours dreamily gazing at as a child. Innocent to the dangers of the world he inhabits, she is drawn to his controlling nature and sense of mystery even though he’s more than 30 years her senior. Eager to be part of something, she goes along with Marcus’ efforts to groom her as an asset for a group of operatives with ties to the CIA and Mossad.

Posing as an aspiring art dealer, she makes an extended visit to the exclusive Cap Ferret home of Edouard, a former Russian general with a fabulous collection of paintings and a lethal past. She is surprised to enjoy his company during their long nightly walks and becomes exceptionally fond of the sweet, super-intelligent 9-year-old son he dotes on. 

Knowing he is behind Operation Ilium, a revenge plot aimed at American assets in the U.K., will she be able to do what is necessary to help foil it? “The problem is, when you reinvent yourself for someone else, you are reinventing around your idea of what they want, and this will get you into all sorts of trouble,” she muses. 

With its dreamily detached narration and elliptical feel, Carpenter’s third novel—following Eleven Days (2013) and Red, White, Blue (2018)—is less interested in spy vs. spy or good vs. bad (both sides are equally capable of the worst) than the lack of reliable truths in people’s lives and the ways they allow themselves to be formed by events beyond their control. “Truth is a toy I play with,” the narrator says in the end. But no more than it plays with her.

An edgy confessional novel with the trappings of spy fiction.

Sharp and riveting, Ilium is a literary novel that reads like a psychological thriller. As a masterful and beguiling storyteller, Lea Carpenter is the perfect guide for this journey to a secret place of intrigue and betrayals.”—Yiyun Li, author of The Book of Goose

“A spellbinding espionage novel. Carpenter’s nuanced understanding of character and identity raises profound questions about love, loss, and the reality of war. Ilium is both mesmerizing and sublime.”—Clémence Michallon, author of The Quiet Tenant

Ilium goes well beyond offering an exciting take on espionage literature. Lea Carpenter has built an entirely new wing onto the genre. Intricate, propulsive, rendered with deft emotion, this female-centric spy story has a deeply human heart.”—Christopher Bollen, author of The Lost Americans

“Spellbindingly-plotted and told in frank, elegant prose, Ilium is a beautiful book about love and war and innocence lost. Carpenter’s depiction of espionage is captivating, while the questions the novel surfaces about identity are perfectly devastating.”—Lisa Taddeo, author of Animal

“Here is the beating heart of a great espionage novel: devious manipulations and moral ambiguity within intimate relationships, with life-or-death consequences. Ilium delivers it all, plus glamorous international settings, complex characters, and sparkling prose. A tremendously satisfying read.”—Chris Pavone, author of Two Nights in Lisbon

“Refreshingly cerebral, literary, and cunningly cinematic . . . [Ilium is an] exploration of personal moral ambiguity playing out in the world of international intrigue.”Booklist, starred review

Ilium is a masterful literary novel posing as a spy novel, and succeeds brilliantly on both levels.”BookPage, starred review

Ilium is an espionage thriller in its richly wrought and detailed plot; but its spotlight falls centrally on the narrator herself, whose yearning for a role to play earns her a bigger one than she could have imagined. The dreamy tone of this sparkling, riveting story sets up a memorable counterpoint to its intrigue. A lonely young woman falls in love and finds herself at the center of a spy mission in this mesmerizing, moving story about different kinds of seduction.”Shelf Awareness

Ilium author Lea Carpenter

Lea Carpeter is a Contributing Editor at Esquire. She was a founding editor of Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, Zoetrope, and worked on John F. Kennedy Jr.’s George magazine. She was the deputy publisher of The Paris Review. She was also the managing editor of Lipper/Atlas publishers and was the founding editor for the Penguin Lives series. [Source:].

Carpenter is the author of three novels, Eleven Days, Red White Blue, and Ilium.

You can find and follow Lea Carpenter on her website

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