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Marian Sutro is recruited by the British in 1941 to work in France during World War Two. Marian previously lived in Geneva, but is now in England working in the WAAF, and as a native French speaker, she is selected to be trained and sent to work undercover in the South-West of France. In addition to the duties she is trained to undertake for the Special Operations Executive, she is given an additional secret assignment. She has happy memories of France from the past, of holidays and friends including Clement Pelletier, a research physicist. Before leaving for France she visits her brother Ned, also a physicist. We see her as she undergoes the numerous varied and rigorous training exercises, during which time she meets others who may play a part in her future, including Benoit. She learns 'how to blend in and how to fade away, how to see without ever being seen.' Then, she is dropped into occupied France by parachute, where her identity becomes Anne-Marie Laroche. When Marian has cause to head for Paris, she finds it is a different place from the one she remembers; it is changed, 'tarnished... this strange city that is a simulacrum of the Paris that she knew' and it is 'riddled with spies.' I will not discuss much more of the plot, as this would spoil it for future readers.

I loved this novel. It is an extremely engaging literary historical thriller. It is, at its heart, the story of a young woman placed in a very dangerous situation, all the while trying to understand her confused, complicated emotions towards two men, and comprehend the nuggets of scientific knowledge she has regarding nothing less than a possible future threat to man. Although Marion is a fictional character, women like her did undertake such missions as is noted at the start of the novel, so the story is very much grounded in fact. I found it an exciting book right down to the very last page and I didn't want it to end - it is a thrilling, fast-paced denouement, which I read with a quickened heartbeat! The author really sets a scene well, he conveys the mood and atmosphere of the times, and I could frequently feel the tension whilst reading. He has created compelling characters and a memorable adventure story which pulled me in; I cared deeply about what would happen to Marion, 'the daring young girl on the flying trapeze', after what she had been through, she has such guts and courage, and yet is so vulnerable. The prose is beautiful, and I was very moved by this story. This is definitely one of my books of the year so far. (reviewed via Netgalley).
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on 12 June 2014
This is the second thriller that I've recently read by a "literary author" which has left me feeling that he should have stuck to his day job. The other was Flight, by Adam Thorpe.

From a literary perspective the story tells how the central character, Marian, has to grow up quickly as she joins the SoE and undertakes a mission for the love of La France and an older-man, Clement, her pre-war sweetheart. You can tell this because every time she meets her parents, brother or Clement she says something like "I'm not a little girl anymore", likewise they all comment on how much she is changing because of her swearing and gritty determination.

The characters are similarly one-dimensional with French agents bored by Britain and hating the weather; her two lovers alternating between charm and arrogance; and all other French people shrugging vigourously. She, of course, is young, beautiful and high-spirited.

The flash-forward intro raises your hopes that you're in for a rattling good read. This is quickly scotched as the first half of the book focusses on the minutiae of her recruitment and training. This left me looking at the final half-inch of the book and wondering how the author could possible fit all of her adventures in France into that.

Sympathy with Marian as a character is difficult. She vears between being clever, resourceful and plucky under-pressure remembering her SoE training to the letter and then blabbing everything about where she's come from, who she works for and what her mission is to anyone who'll listen.

I eventually found out how the author squeezed her adventures into such a small space as the final part of the mission is rattled through in double-time and the book ended before he has to refill his pen. The ending had me wanting to dash my head against the table wondering how SoE could let such a nincompoop loose in occupied Europe. I can just imagine Noel Coward's clipped tones saying "You're a silly little fool, but incredibly brave."
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 April 2012
A short introduction to The Girl Who Fell From The Sky acknowledges the largely unsung effort of female agents sent into the field during the Second World War, and it's certainly the starting point for Simon Mawer's novel to show just how difficult and challenging the task was for young women unused to such direct military activity, not to mention how much more vulnerable they would be if captured. Any idea that the novel is just a kind of testimonial to their efforts is however soon forgotten or at least put to one side as the tense story of nineteen year old Marian Sutro unfolds, thrown into basic training and then parachuted into the heart of German-occupied France with a primary and a secondary mission of vital importance that are to challenge her profoundly and raise more serious questions.

Leaving aside the historical inspiration, Mawer's novel operates primarily as a thrilling account of wartime espionage, and at the same time - and rather uniquely in this respect - one that is seen through the eyes of inexperienced young Englishwoman (of French background) who is fully aware of the dangers she faces and trained to deal with them, but also has all the conflicting emotional needs and desires of a woman of the period that cannot be denied either. This is neatly tied into her mission to contact and, if possible, encourage a French scientist in Paris to come to England, who just happens to be a young man she used to know from her time living in Geneva. The object of a childhood crush that she has held onto over the years since the outbreak of the war, how will Clément look upon this new grown-up Marian, a woman seemingly as different as the many aliases she now switches between, but one who still has the heart of that young girl from all those years ago.

In some ways, the personal element of the story raises the old questions of the conflict between love and duty, but through his characters and the changes they are forced to undergo during a time of war, Mawer considers these ideas, particularly how the roles of men and women are changed, in a rather different context. What makes the issue more than just the usual questions of responsibilities and the morality of actions during wartime is the nature and scale of the scientific experiment that Clément is being asked to be involved in. The author raises the issue in a very original manner, equating the seismic advances in scientific knowledge with a similar leap that needs to be made on the human level, subtly defining characters in terms of atomic and sub-atomic particles and their relationships and actions as a chain reaction within that.

Mawer doesn't necessarily solve the moral issues raised within the book, necessarily deferring any personal judgement or imposing any sense of a modern hindsight perspective, retaining instead a sense of patriotic duty that is in keeping with the times. Set during this period however, at a time when it the ability to kill thousands from a distance (through something more than just a girl falling from the sky) would soon make those issues far more complex, Marian's actions and the decisions she takes at least highlight the necessity of people to courageously deal with the reality of those questions directly. On the surface, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky appears to be little more than a tense WWII war/espionage thriller - and a very good one on that basis alone - but it's so well written with realistic characters that you can relate to, that there is a great deal more depth and relevance to be found in it.
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Marian Sutro is a young woman from Geneva, with an English father and a French mother. It is wartime and Marian is in London, when she is approached about whether she would undertake a secret mission in occupied France. Although she knows she should be afraid, Marian is exhilarated by the thought. We travel with her through training and see her learn how to use morse code, how to shoot a weapon and kill a man. Through it all, though, she is still a young woman, who is coming to terms with herself and her feelings. In England she meets a young Frenchman, Benoit, who is also travelling to France. However, she is also asked to try to meet up with Clement Pelletier, a French scientist and friend of her brother, Ned. There is top secret research being carried out in England and those involved want to recruit Clement for the Allies. When she was young, Marian had a crush on her brother’s older friend and now she finds herself torn and conflicted emotionally, as she heads into the unknown.

France has changed when Marian parachutes into occupied territory, with a new alias and a whole new set of skills. She begins as a courier, helping the Resistance and then comes the call to go Paris. Marian heads into danger, as she has to meet a former colleague she trained with and convince Clement Pelletier to leave the country. As she leaves the country for the city, she is constantly on alert; having to contact, and trust, people with her life. Can she complete her mission without being compromised? This is a thrilling wartime story of betrayal, bravery and of a young woman who discovers she can do so much more than she believed possible.
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on 15 March 2014
A very young female British agent is parachuted into France during WW2, written with full details of harsh training and dangerous tasks in rural France and Paris, I couldn’t help wondering how this male writer born after the war had managed to find so much research to weave into the book as only 39 females were sent, 12 of which never made it back. The intense detail did slow the first half of the book considerably but nothing a good editor could have rectified.
It was compelling and tense read, I was out of my depth understanding the history/politics, all I had seen about the resistance before was “Allo Allo”
There was some very plain sex acts which didn’t add to the story, and from a virgin she gave herself very quickly to 2 men, one married.
Marian I admire what she went through but she was naïve to trust Yvette and to go back, she had had a privileged upbringing and during her younger years she had met up with a physicist Clement through her brother Ned who was the trigger for her being enrolled, or maybe she was just a French speaking WAAF who was innocent enough to accept a 50/50 chance of surviving working as a FANY (Didn’t understand why this was relevant as there seemed to be no nursing requirement or training in medical terms for her to use as a cover) for the Special Operations Executive.
Thanks to Simon Mawer I know how atomic bombs work – that was an unnecessary addition.
I wanted her to leave with Clement or shoot the Alsatian woman!
And at the end I wanted to shout out NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
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on 25 October 2013
The main character of this novel is 23 year old Marian Sutro: fluent in both French and English, she is sought out by the Special Operations Executive to work undercover in occupied France. She is parachuted into the Bordeaux region of France staying in a small town called Lussac and starts working as a courier for the resistance. However, her most important mission is to contact an old friend of her brother in Paris who is a nuclear physicist called Clement Pelletier and try to persuade him to return to England. Her relationship with Clement is also complicated by the fact that there was a strong attraction between them when they last had any contact when she was a young impressionable schoolgirl.
I have a strong interest in the SOE and consider this to be a very well researched book. The story moves from Marian's recruitment, through to her training, then to her time in occupied France. I also felt that the author has a real quality to his writing and is able to evoke to the reader the fears and changing values that a previously innocent convent girl would have faced with the threat of death every minute of every day.
However, I found the ending to this book far too abrupt and disappointing. I felt there should have been at least one more chapter. For me it felt that the author had had enough of writing the book and decided to end it there. However, up to that point I was really enjoying it and I have no doubt that there will be other readers with a different view to mine.
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I would first like to say that I loved two of Simon Mawer's other books: "The Glass Room" was excellent and I consider "The Fall" as one of my fave books ever. So please do not be put off by this turgid novel.

It was such a huge disappointment to me (and my wife). I almost gave up on about 6 separate occassions and just kept thinking "surely it's got to get better". This would not have happened if I hadn't read his other books - I would have consigned it to the waste paper basket before page 50.

It just drags on page after page without the story getting any further along. The main heroine just seems like a silly little middle class ninny. I am sure these women who put their lives on the line for the allies had much more to them than is written here - they must have had an enormous amount of inner strength which just does not come out.

Like others have said, it just appears he did a lot of research on eeh subject so us readers had to be subjected to every little detail - it's really not necessary Simon! We BELIEVE you did the research - don't just regurgitate it in front of us.

Sorry - a real car crash of a novel for me. I hope this has not put me off his other novels - but it will be a while before I feel like I can dip my toes back in to Mawer's world(s).
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on 14 August 2013
I have read all, if not nearly all, Simon Mawer's previous books. To me his greatest work so far is still "The Fall", simply because it takes us into the world and thoughts of the people involved in a way which feels truly authentic. To me "The girl who fell from the sky" also does this. I found it a great read, and I can see why it's attracted some glowing reviews here.

It's less easy to see why it has attracted a few critical reviews. One could perhaps suggest that this is very likely because it covers ground that has already been pretty well covered previously. There must be a limit as to how many variations you can bring to the story, not that I've read any other books covering the topic as other reviewers have.

It's interesting that some of those who wrote critical reviews here have quoted "The Glass Room" as their favourite Mawer. Simon Mawer writes over a wide range of topics, and his novels take on very different flavours, so no doubt it's a question that some are going to appeal more to different people than others.

Personally I found "The Girl who fell from the sky" was excellent. Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 August 2012
My expectations raised by the originality of "The Glass House", this novel proved a disappointment. The adventures of a British woman parachuted into occupied France to work for the Resistance offer the scope for a gripping drama, but it is as if the author has been forced to write for a deadline when he did not feel in the mood.

Why was I so soon and often bored by what should have been by turns exciting and moving? I think it was the lack of a clear evocation of time and place - I never really felt I was in Scotland, or rural France, or Paris during the war of the 1940s. Similarly the characters rarely came alive in my imagination as convincing people. The creation of tension and expression of real feeling are obscured rather than enhanced by a veil of would-be literary writing which stumbles quite often over clunky phrasing. Much of the dialogue is quite dull.

I found myself niggling over minor points, such as the repetition on page 57 (hardback) of "She shrugged the question away". Why did no editor pick this up? Plus the language used in conversation often sounded too modern.

Even when Marian at last gets to France, the narrative drive is too weak to maintain the necessary sense of tension. The potential drama is continually defused by her introspection. This is evident as early as the opening chapter, clearly intended to hook the reader, yet we find her mulling over things like her father's classical allusions which she likes to call illusions when she is about to make her first parachute jump into France! Her lack of motivation to work in Special Operations makes you wonder why on earth she was selected for the role. When a reason is supplied, it seems implausible, and is not sufficiently developed in the plot. Marian does not seem quite real, so I do not care as I should when she is in danger.
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on 7 August 2012
I bought this book having read a very positive newspaper review and while I quite enjoyed it, it didn't really live up to my expectations. On the upside, it is well-written overall and once the narrative takes the SOE heroine to France, the story flows at a good pace and most if not all of the background details and localities feel credible.

However, I do think the book has its weaknesses - which is why I've only given 3 stars. The book is in two parts - the first set in England covering the heroine's background, recruitment by SOE and training, the second of course on active service in France. I found the first part very uneven in tone and the chapters on the agent training felt cursory and unconvincing. While the second part is more coherent and engaging, the characters apart from Marian herself are sketchy, and the very ending felt to me too abrupt and out of keeping with the rest of the book.

In terms of comparing the book with others in the genre, I don't think that overall it's nearly as good as the Alan Furst espionage novels, which are equally well written but more atmospheric and richer in detail and character. The nearest comparisons in my view are the first two in David Downing's Berlin "Station" series (I say the first two because I think he raised his game from "Stettin Station" onwards) - perfectly respectable reads but nothing really memorable.
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