Aya de León pushes the spy thriller into 2021.
In a time that’s equivalent to that 30 Rock “Lemon, it’s Wednesday,” meme, A Spy in the Struggle is a warm breeze, a reset, a refresh, like opening your front door on a harsh winter day and finding you’re on a tropical island. Yolanda Vance is a tightly wound Harvard law graduate and, reluctantly, a new FBI recruit after her big money corporate job disappears under indictment. Through her, readers get a funny but extremely heartful fish-out-of-water story about institutionalized racism, corruption, community organizing, and surprisingly, love and vulnerability.
Shipped out from the East Coast to the California town where she went to college, Yolanda is tasked with infiltrating a youth-focused eco-racial justice group that’s labeled “extremist” in big, red scary letters. The reality, she finds, is really an old gym full of ambitious, bright teenagers and their beleaguered leader, who are desperate to be heard and taken seriously by their community leadership. After a suspicious death that the local cops label an overdose, Yolanda’s mind starts to turn: is she fighting for the wrong side?
“From the beginning with this case, she was uncertain if the FBI was listening in her apartment, and she knew they were listening in the [extremist organization’s] office. In a wave of paranoia, she worried they could hear her thoughts. That was ridiculous. But they could have someone following,” Yolanda thinks with growing agitation. “Did they?”
Aya de León really shows just how droll the last 200 years of white dude spy stories have been in comparison to all the complexity and approachability she imbues into Yolanda. She writes a strong woman with a conflicting, difficult past, who grapples with the reality of being a black woman spying on a black community—different from her own, but one that she comes to know and love.
My favorite part of the novel comes in one of Yolanda’s memories, of being five years old at her father’s funeral, which De León uses to push her protagonist into a deeper understanding of herself and then, her role in this assignment.
“Black girl, black, dress, black hair in braids, black patent leather shoes,” she writes. “Black church women. Black church, black funeral. Black mama, black dress, black hat. Black daddy, black suit. Yolanda’s white socks and her daddy’s white shirt were the only things not black that she recalled anyone wearing at the funeral, the burial, and as they closed the casket, lowered the lid over the black suit, black daddy, she could feel the connection sever, like the socks and the shirt were the last of their connection, and she cried into the white handkerchief they gave her. And she remembered thinking that she would have liked his shirt, instead. His white shirt. His white shirt which she thought would smell like him.”
In true James Bond fashion, midway into A Spy in the Struggle, romance strikes our heroine. Yolanda strikes up a casual flirtation with a local college professor who frequents the same running path, only to obviously learn he’s a major player in her FBI operation. And, of course, this romance compromises Yolanda’s mission as deeply as it tangles up her heart. For the uptight, career-focused Agent Vance, softening her heart for love is a welcome character shift. It helped bring her 180-degree shift from cop to full-blown critic of the U.S. justice system into real, believable life for me. Meeting some great kids in an afterschool program would certainly be meaningful, but give me a charming lover like Jimmy to really make me see the light of day.
Unlike James Bond, though—except maybe emo Casino Royale Bond—the romance is a bit over-the-top. When I think of love scenes in spy movies, it’s all brass tax and devoid of emotion. But Yolanda, unable to be a 007-style robot, delights in their goofy, embarrassing, uninhibited love. My tolerance for romance is pretty high, and even I cringed at lines like, “My body didn’t lie to you, Jimmy,” after he discovers Yolanda’s an FBI agent. “I didn’t lie about what I felt, only about who I was.”
What really sets this novel apart for me is Yolanda’s depth. De León weaves the protagonist’s life story throughout the novel through memories like her father’s funeral, showing readers decades of experiences that show up in the character Yolanda is today. Readers see the heartbreaks and disappointments that sharpened her focus until she became this hardworking, wound-up, FBI agent, striving, ultimately, to escape poverty.
If you’re looking for the wintertime equivalent of a beach read, that also meaningfully engages with the world around you, then I cannot recommend A Spy in the Struggle enough. De León pushes the spy thriller genre into 2021, and I’m never settling for James Bond again.
(Kensington Books, December 29, 2020)