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The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (unabridged audiobook)
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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon 27 January 2013
Note: In the US, this book is called "Trapeze".

Marian Sutro is bilingual: the daughter of an English father and French mother. She is recruited to be an undercover agent in France during WW2. When the book opens she is in a plane about to descend by parachute into the south of France. The book then goes back in time to explain how she was recruited, how she was trained and how she learned about her dual missions in France. Once she arrives in France she finds that it has changed significantly from the country that she once knew. But she has also changed and she approaches her tasks with a cool head and a professional demeanour.

The synopsis for this book makes it sound like a fast paced thriller, but it's more William Boyd than James Bond. The first half in particular moves quite slowly. Interestingly, the first half is written in the past tense and she is referred to as Marian. Once she arrives in France, the book moves to the present tense and she is referred to as Alice (the name by which she is known to her fellow agents). The second half has quite a different feel: it's tenser and you feel closer to Marian, who is quite distant in the early parts of the book. Towards the end, the pace and tension ratchet up and become almost unbearable. Without giving the ending away, I will say that it is quite unforgettable. I like the way that Mawer foreshadows things (for example the ending) without making it apparent what's going to happen.

I am a sucker for books about how agents are trained. If you share this obsession of mine, you'll like Restless: TV tie-in and the movie The Assignment [DVD] (1997).
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
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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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 23 September 2013
This book could have been so much better if the back story didn't occupy so much of the first part of the book. After the first chapter when our heroine is parachuted into France, one could skip the next `40 per cent' and hardly miss anything at all. There's much about recruitment, training and the organisation and Simon Mawer commits the cardinal sin of so many writers in needing to tell us all about his exciting background research - in this case, quantum mechanics. He is not alone, I once read a mystery novel set in Africa and at the end could I could have achieved a first degree in geology and mining engineering. Why do so many writers love to tell us about their hours in the public library? So, dear reader, we are carried along into the world of the atom, its electrons and neutrons. And soon we learn that the particle (which can also be a wave function (that is, it can be in two states at the same time) is a metaphor for our heroine's mind also being in two states. But, hey! Let's not stop there. We get Schrodinger's cat (which is also in two states - either dead or alive or possibly both) and the notion of a collapsing wave function. I hope you're following all this. I thought to myself as I ploughed along that at any moment we would get the double slit experiment as well as mentions of Heisenberg and Niels Bohr's work on the atom bomb. And sure enough there they were - several more pages down the line. We are now into Michael Frayn's play `Copenhagen'. So, after a lot more about the theory of an atomic bomb and how uncritical masses can become critical, the story comes back on track.
Not soon enough depending on how much you enjoyed your sojourn into nuclear fission. But thankfully we are now in Paris under German occupation and the story picks up its skirts and buzzes along with a great feel for what occupied Paris must have felt like.

Simon Mawer is not in the least bit coy about the intimate anatomical details of our heroine hiding forbidden items in places where no one might look but when it comes to sex, a discreet Barbara Cartland veil is drawn. Sex is of the `went to bed and afterwards' variety. No passion, no confusion of being a virgin and then not being a virgin, no exploration of our heroine's emotional state, no fondling, hugging, kissing. In fact it's all pussy-footing about and the story moves on as though these events were no more than nasal sniffles.

The book is well written but the research shows through and then wears thin as the metaphors pile up. The book is good on the excitement of the occupation and the tensions of sending coded messages but our heroine remains less well drawn, cluttered as she is by teenage fantasies about an older man. Simon Mawer could have put even more excitement into the Paris escapades with the Germans and had he been braver with his writing talents a more rounded and emotionally balanced protagonist might then have emerged. But he doesn't because he wants to tell us about those long hours in the library.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 September 2013
"The Girl Who Fell From The Sky" - this isn't an original title for a book but it's apt: it felt as though the girl of the title (Marian, Anne-Marie, Laurence etc,) fell into the story as though by accident. From the outset one gets the impression she is a cipher, both literally and metaphorically. Her role in occupied France means that she must appear to be a person of no importance; a nonentity who changes her identity more frequently than she changes her clothes. And that is how she is portrayed, rather than a woman of passionate convictions, which is what characterised and sustained the incredibly brave women of the SOE.

When I reached the end of the book, I had to go back to the beginning to inform myself why she took the action she took. What motivated her. And I found it on page 11, when she meets Mr Potter for the second time:

"At that meeting you talked, quite eloquently I thought, of your love of France, of the fact that you wanted to do something more directly for her."

But none of this eloquence, love of France, willingness to risk her life in the name of patriotism was ever made manifest to the reader. We only have Mr Potter's word for it. Which made her 'mission' and any potential sacrifice pretty pointless. She remained, for this reader, a cipher - detached, confused, naive, often arrogant and sometimes petulant but never committed, determined, resolute or, sadly, engaging.

The strength of this novel lies in its grim portrayal of occupied Paris; the inescapable conclusion that people were commodities, valuable only insofar as they were able to do the job for which they were chosen by shadowy representatives of the British State - the callousness with which they were despatched to almost certain death is chillingly depicted.
This, and the quality of the prose, earns a disappointing three stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2012
Marian Sutro is a young woman selected by SOE for service in wartime France. As the note at the start says, 39 young women were so selected, of whom 13 did not return alive. So we are constantly aware of the dangers in wait as Marian is trained and receives her mission. That, we discover, involves an old flame; and also secrets that could determine the outcome of the war. No pressure, there, then!....

The narrative moves with pace, the events individually hold the attention and we follow Marian as she does all sorts of things she probably once thought she would never have in her, as the pressure of circumstances and the questions of being true to herself are worked through in the things that happen to her and the things she decides to do (it's probably best not to summarise the plot!) The picture of wartime England and France seems to have the ring of truth to it (though I wasn't there!)

So, I enjoyed reading this and would recommend it to others.

My harshest criticism would be that it's a little contrived and forced - a wartime story of a secret agent isn't enough, there has to be physics in there and an overloading of significance in the mission. And then when it comes to Marian's decision-taking, yes it's interesting that she reveals herself and becomes self-aware through her actions BUT how good is her decision-taking supposed to be (sometimes excellent, sometimes poor even after advice and criticism from others? - that's what I think you'd have to conclude if you reflected on it...)
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Our Book Club chose this for August and on discussion we all felt the same way - that the story is intriguing at first with a now well- worn path of an unexpected approach, recruitment, training and subterfuge, towards dropping our heroine into France, during the Occupation, to perform a complicated and dangerous mission.

Later though it becomes sadly clear that we were not involved enough to keep up the tension, the descriptions were flat, the characters unsympathetic and the joy of reading turning into a job to get done. The addition of a atom bomb creation plot seemed to overload the storyline and tip it into the overwrought; over egging the pudding. The way in which Marian/Anne Marie/other names behaves doesn't make sense, her judgement is flaky, her motives are missing, her introspection boring. She disobeys instructions and resists important parts of her training thus endangering herself unnecessarily.

As a group of female readers we thought that the male author was exploring his own fantasies when writing about Anne Marie's hectic intimacies rather than describing realistic relationships we would in any way recognise.

We didn't take to her and wished we understood why such rave reviews are given to an ordinary effort that quite honestly peters out leaving us all wondering why we bothered. This theme is far better covered by Restless, Charlotte Grey, and Carve Her Name With Pride.
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