Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Young Bluestockings Book Club reads The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Welcome to the first Young Bluestockings Book Club meeting of 2012! Dedicated to all things high-minded (usually), improving (frequently), and fun (always, we hope!), the Young Bluestockings Book Club meets to discuss books of interest to readers of NineteenTeen: books related to 19th century teens and their life. Please make yourselves comfortable—yes, I know, that horsehair-upholstered sofa is terribly slippery—refresh your teacup, and let’s get started!

First, a note—there will be spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want any surprises ruined…YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! :)

Ahem…now, here we go!

First, a brief re-cap of this meeting's book, The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee: 12-year-old street orphan Mary Quinn is rescued from imminent execution by a mysterious woman who offers not only life, but a place at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, a charitable institution that will give her the education to lead a useful life. Fast-forward five years, and Mary is now a junior teacher at the Academy, and has gone from being suspicious of the school to dedicated. So when two of her fellow teachers reveal the secret at the school’s heart—that it is a front and training ground for an ultra-secret, all-female intelligence service called The Agency—she jumps at the chance to join.

Mary’s first assignment is as a paid companion to the daughter of a wealthy east Asia merchant, Henry Thorold, who is suspected of dealing in stolen priceless Indian artifacts and tax evasion. The assignment is not always easy for a girl of Mary’s peppery temperament: her charge, Angelica, is a spoiled beauty who does her best to make Mary’s life a misery, and under the placid surface of the household, intrigue bubbles and swirls. Mary’s own feelings are complicated by a certain James Easton, whose brother George is one of Angelica’s suitors and who has his own reasons for wanting to know more about Mr. Thorold’s activities. And Mary has a secret of her own that not even her employers at the Agency know about—a secret she fears will alienate her from them and from the world, and which has a curious—and tragic—connection to the case she’s investigating.

Rather than listening to us spout, we want to hear from you: what did you think about the book? Here are a few questions to get you going:

  • Although the central premise of an all-women spy ring in 1850s England is, of course, extraordinarily unlikely, were you able to suspend disbelief enough to go along with the story?

  • Everyone seems to have a secret in the Thorold household...which secret did you find most intriguing and unexpected?

  • Mary has already stated that she has no interest in marriage...but then she finds herself drawn to James Easton. Do you think she'll change her mind about marriage, or do you think that her relationship with James will take a different tack? What do you think of young Mr. Easton?

  • Mary is intent on concealing her multi-ethnic birth, even from her trusted colleagues at the Agency. Do you think she'd over-reacting? D0 you suspect (as I do) that it will eventually turn into a source of strength for her?
All right, Young Bluestockings...discuss! And please don't limit yourself to these suggested talking points--bring up whatever you'd like!

P.S. As a history geekish side-note, the problem of the horrible stench from the Thames was an ongoing problem in the middle years of the century—in fact, at one point, in the summer of 1858 (as detailed in the book) the odor was so bad that it nearly forced Parliament (which sits right on the river) to close and earned the title of “The Great Stink.” The problem was the explosive growth of the city of London: the huge influx of people meant a huge influx of garbage and human waste, and the old disposal method—letting it all drain into the river and get swept out to sea on the tides—was no longer sufficient. Don’t forget, too, that the germ theory of disease had not yet been postulated, and Londoners were sure that the stench from the river caused the cholera outbreaks that had become commonplace. Over the next several years, the London sewer system was overhauled and improved, removing the stink and halting the cholera outbreaks by decontaminating the local water supply.


QNPoohBear said...

I was definitely able to suspend my disbelief about an all female spy ring. In fact my greatest disappointment with the story is that the reader is not privy to Mary's spy training! I wanted more spy school!

Mrs. Thorold's secret was definitely a big shock though I began to suspect she knew more than she let on. Mary's secret is the most intriguing though and my only other disappointment with the book was that the mystery of her father was left unresolved. (To be picked up again in book 3). I wanted to know what was in the box he left for Mary.

James is so swoonworthy I think she will change her mind about marriage. I can see James and Mary becoming the 19th century version of Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man movies). However, I can't really answer this question without spoiling book 2.

I think Mary's employers at The Agency wouldn't care about her ethnic background but some people DO care in both good and bad ways. Also she struggles with her past life as a thief. Her background really truly matters in her time and place and it's not easy for her to reconcile her past with her present activities and wishes for the future. This subject is the focus in The Body at the Tower (Book 2). Mary really struggles with her identity. She doesn't know herself who she is. She has to figure that out before she can really grow up and become an adult.

I loved this book and the idea of intrigue and an all-female spy agency in Victorian London. I was drawn to Mary's personal identity crisis more than the crime drama. I'm eagerly awaiting The Traitor in the Tunnel (Book 3) due out at the end of February. I'm trying not to read the UK reviews for spoilers.

I hope everyone else enjoyed this book as much as I did.

Marissa Doyle said...

Excellent discussion, QNPoohBear. Anyone else? Has anyone not read the book, but are now intrigued and intend to?

Sarah Floyd said...

I love spy stuff, boarding school stories and historical fiction -- what a wonderful combination! This is tops on my TBR list.

QNPoohBear said...

I just finished the third book and it was perfect. It wraps up everything nicely. It's the best in the series!

Regina Scott said...

Very good to know! Y.S. Lee has accepted our invitation to guest blog, so we hope to host her soon.