Tuesday evening I finished one of the best historical fiction novels I have ever read. Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees will easily make my 2020 Top 10 and may even secure a spot as one of my all-time favorites.
World War II has just ended, and Britain has established the Control Commission for Germany, which oversees their zone of occupation. The Control Commission hires British civilians to work in Germany, rebuild the shattered nation and prosecute war crimes. Somewhat aimless, bored with her job as a provincial schoolteacher, and unwilling to live with her overbearing mother any longer, thirtysomething Edith Graham applies for a job with the Commission—but she is also recruited by her cousin, Leo, who is in the Secret Service. To them, Edith is perfect spy material…single, ordinary-looking, with a college degree in German. Cousin Leo went to Oxford with one of their most hunted war criminals, Count Kurt von Stavenow, who Edith remembers all too well from before the war. He wants her to find him.
Intrigued by the challenge, Edith heads to Germany armed with a convincing cover story: she’s an unassuming Education Officer sent to help resurrect German schools. To send information back to her Secret Service handlers in London, Edith has crafted the perfect alter ego, cookbook author Stella Snelling, who writes a popular magazine cookery column. She embeds crucial intelligence within the recipes she collects. But occupied Germany is awash with other spies, collaborators, and opportunists, and as she’s pulled into their world, Edith soon discovers that no one is what they seem to be. The closer she gets to uncovering von Stavenow’s whereabouts–and the network of German civilians who still support him–the greater the danger.
With a unique, compelling premise, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is a beautifully crafted and gripping novel about daring, betrayal, and female friendship.
This story predominantly takes place in the aftermath of WWII in Germany. Edith Graham is a single schoolteacher who feels the need to contribute to the war recovery since she didn’t give to the war effort. She is accepted as a member of the Control Commission for Germany (CCG) to help reestablish the education system. However, she is also recruited as a reluctant spy to help locate runaway Nazis. It was interesting to witness Edith develop as a spy and become a valuable member to so many individuals.
Edith’s character rivals the women we met in The Nightingale and The Alice Network. She is strong and clever, but also maintains her humanity in the face of devastation. She is determined and dependent, as well as one who is not afraid to do what is right. Edith was faced with many challenges throughout the book, including the threat of being double-crossed, knowing who to trust, and being in an enemy country that still has loyal citizens to the previous regime. All this created an undeniable connection to Edith and I found myself asking “What would I do in her position?”
The female characters that surround Edith were incredibly written. Dori and Adeline shared similar qualities to Edith, but are slightly rougher around the edges. They were actively involved in the war effort and have seen the worst of mankind, which is something that Edith is experiencing for the first time. I absolutely adored the kinship that developed between these three women and felt their emotions as if I was a member of their circle. There is one other female character we encounter multiple times throughout the story, Elisabeth von Stavenow. Edith met Elisabeth before the war and upon arriving in Germany longs to know how Elisabeth fared under Nazi rule. It took time for me to develop my opinion of Elisabeth, but I will admit that my view of her changed throughout the novel.
Opposite Edith and her crew are the men of the story. Kurt von Stavenow, Elisabeth’s husband, and someone Edith knew before emerges after the war as one of the most wanted Nazi war criminals. As the story progressed and I learned why Kurt was highly sought after by the British, Russians, and Americans I decided that he is one of the worst historical fiction villains I have ever read. His actions during the war were horrendous, disgusting, and unforgiveable. During Edith’s time hunting for Kurt she meets Harry Hirsch, a Jewish man involved in clandestine activities. I fell in love with Harry’s character from the moment he was introduced. Harry and Edith’s story was a bright spot in the dark aftermath of a horrific war.
This book was so unique because of the way Rees explored the devastation in Germany after WWII. It is clear that Rees took her time to research the hardships experienced by the people left behind, as well as the impossibly difficult rebuilding efforts. Additionally, Rees added a spin on the typical spy storyline by fashioning recipes that contained coded messages passed between Edith and Dori. This was such a fun way to incorporate the culture of post-war Germany while the characters continued to engage in espionage.
I found Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook to be riveting and quite powerful. These characters are ones that I will remember for a long time after reading. I highly recommend this to any historical fiction fan, especially those of The Alice Network and The Nightingale.
Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins for my advanced copy of this e-book. All opinions are my own.
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