The Lipstick Bureau by Michelle Gable
Published by Graydon House ISBN 9781525811470
Trade paperback, $16.99, 464 pages
I truly enjoy a good historical novel based on real people, and after reading Michelle Gable's last novel, The Bookseller's Secret (which featured a fictionalized Nancy Mitford), I knew I would want to read her new novel, The Lipstick Bureau.
The novel opens in May 1989 as Niki and her daughter Andrea are attending a black tie dinner in Washington DC to honor the "Ladies of the O.S.S.", or as Niki says a "deceptively quaint title, like a neighborhood bridge club." Andrea knew that her mother worked for the O.S.S., the precursor of today's C.I.A., but she was shocked to learn that her mother was not an interpreter or secretary, but she was an important member of the propaganda team called Morale Ops.
The story turns to 1943, when Niki, who speaks eight languages, manages to get herself assigned to a Morale Ops team in Algiers. A few years earlier, Niki tried unsuccessfully to convince her parents and beloved young brother Pasha to leave Czechoslovakia with her as the Nazis were moving to annex the country.
Niki's team is soon sent to Rome during the last few years of the war and Niki hopes that she can get assigned closer to her home country where she can find out what has happened to her family. In the meantime, Niki uses her brains and creativity to find ways that Morale Ops can convince German soldiers and citizens that Hitler is losing the war and they should turn against him.
I liked Niki's creativity and her out-of-the-box thinking, even if it skirts military rules. Sometimes her ideas backfire, and when they do, she gets the blame. When her ideas succeed, her partner Will get the credit and promotions that she deserves.
Niki is brilliant, headstrong, and a terrible driver. She encourages a local Italian housewife-turned-prostitute Paloma to help her with some of her plans, and when her sister-in-law Moggy turns up (possibly to spy on Niki for Nicki's husband), Moggy becomes involved in as well.
Niki is based on the real life of Barbara Lauwers, and some of the operations in the story (code names Sauerkraut, Cornflakes, and Monte Rosa) actually happened. Gable brings her characters to vivid life, especially the women, and she gives Niki a great sense of humor. (Niki calls the O.S.S. "a hodgepodge of army castoffs and every rich family's one stupid son.")
I didn't know much about Rome after the Nazis were driven from there, and found Gable's description of it and the Morale Ops fascinating. If you are a reader of Susan Elia MacNeal's wonderful Maggie Hope WWII series, as I am, The Lipstick Bureau is a must-read.
Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on Michelle Gable's tour.
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