JOINT REVIEW: Honeytrap by Aster Glenn Gray
Sirius and I reviewed Aster Glenn Gray’s f/f novella, The Wolf and the Girl, early this year. We decided to reunite for her new m/m novel, Honeytrap. Both works feature Russian characters so I’m especially glad to have Sirius, who lived in what was then a part of the Soviet Union, reviewing these with me. – Janine
Janine: Honeytrap begins in 1959, with twenty-something FBI special agent Daniel Hawthorne sitting in his boss’s office. Mr. Gilman, the boss, wants to let Daniel off the hook for an affair with a fellow agent but not without letting Daniel know (I read this as a subtle warning) that he is aware of Daniel’s bisexuality.
The topic then shifts to an upcoming mission. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev is in the US for a diplomatic tour and evidence of an attempt on his life has turned up. Daniel is tasked with finding the culprit, but the Soviets insist that one of their men, Gennady Ilyich Matskevich—suspected of being a KGB agent—, participate in the mission as well.
The action then shifts and we see Gennady on tour with Daniel. As they search for the would-be assassin, they also drive through parts of the Midwest, going to restaurants and other local attractions such as mini-golf. Daniel has been instructed to show Gennady the best aspects of the United States—it never hurts to try to get a KGB agent to defect—but Gennady has been commanded to do something more sinister: spring a honeytrap on Daniel.
It was Gennady’s direct supervisor, Arkady, who assigned this duty to Gennady. Gennady does not want to do it, but he has to give it the old college try so that he can tell his boss he did his best. It’s hard, though, because Gennady has only had a few fumbling experiences of same-sex fooling around and all of them took place when he was drunk and he ascribes them to his drunkenness. And Daniel hardly ever drinks.
Daniel and Gennady travel through the Midwest in search of the shooter and at first they are stymied at every turn. It’s clear that the culprit is inept; he used a gun instead of a rifle, for one thing. The person who targeted Khrushchev also left evidence that he subscribed to a right-wing newsletter. So Daniel and Gennady start with the ballistics and the list of the newsletter’s subscribers.
This is not the main point of the book. The would-be assassin is incompetent and doesn’t pose a serious danger to Gennady and Daniel. Instead the greatest danger they face is their developing attraction. It’s not a good idea for Daniel to give in to it, and as for Gennady, he comes to like Daniel enough, and Daniel is so open and sweet, that Gennady doesn’t want to honeytrap him.
Will Gennady and Daniel fall into a honeytrap after all? Will they fall in love instead? If so, will they be found out? And can there ever be a happy ending for two people in love while their countries are at war?
Okay, so the first thing I want to ask you about is the thing I’m most curious about—how did you feel about the portrayal of Russians and of life in the Soviet Union? Most of it rang true to me but I have only a tiny fraction of your expertise.
Sirius: I thought the portrayal of Russian person and life in the Soviet Union (through Genady’s eyes mostly) was exceptionally well done. So many details that I can relate to, so many of Genady’s reactions were mine – the desire to read as much American literature as it was available, the feeling that Americans were “promiscuously friendly” ( after living here and being American citizen for a little less than that I still cannot use the word friend the way people who are born here using it – no, no, person with whom I have occasional conversations on the way to work, or even every day conversation is *not* my friend , acquaintance at most), not liking sweet potato v regular potato.
I could recognize his reactions so well. Of course there is a caveat. Gennady was born several decades before I was ( and my generation), so whether author got every reaction of the person born in the late thirties – early forties, I cannot be hundred percent sure – of course what I read about that period and spy agencies, more or less rings true and it is still gazillion times better than anything I have seen in ANY m/m romances I have read (off the top of my head anyway).
Janine: I’m glad to hear that! She got other aspects of the setting right too, from mimeographed copies in the 1959 (before photocopiers existed) to the absence of interstate highways that had not yet been built to Daniel’s statement that there’s no such thing as laying it on too thick in the Midwest. I used to live in the Midwest and LOL, so true.
I wanted to ask you what you thought of Gennady more generally. I loved him. He was so interesting as a character. He is nothing if not a pragmatist and he starts out a bit cynical, wiser to life and its vicissitudes than Daniel is. He’s less trusting—at first he wonders if Daniel has also been asked to spring a honeytrap—but has a lovely heart under all that. He can’t help but feel affection for Daniel, and his feelings get more complex as the book unfolds. What did you think of him?
Sirius: I liked Gennady too. As I said I could relate to his outlook at life in many ways. Of course thinking about his profession (and only having books/movies knowledge about said profession, so who knows just how correct that knowledge is) I cannot help but doubt that person like Gennady could survive in his profession for so long. I just don’t think most agents would have refused the honeytrap assignment though, I think Gennady while being pragmatic and all, still portrayed as too kind hearted. I get that it was needed to make him a likable character in the romance novel and it is not completely unbelievable to me that sometimes person like him could become an agent, but I still was not completely sold if that makes sense.
Janine: Yes, re Gennady’s job, I thought that too. There was a soft-focus lens when it came to the professional lives of the characters. But I had even more mixed feelings about Daniel on that score. I thought he started out much too naïve, romantic and trusting for an FBI agent, and particularly for an FBI agent who is assigned to work with a KGB agent. Surely he would have been warned up and down not to trust Gennady? In fact given his history of sleeping with another agent I don’t think he would have been assigned this case at all. But of course then we would not have had a book. There’s a reason why he wasn’t drummed out of the FBI for being bisexual (we learn this in the second half so I won’t mention it) and his fluency in Russian did help make his participation in this case a bit more plausible. But still.
Sirius: Yep agreed about Daniel, the level of trust in their joint venture went up way too fast for me, in fact I am not sure about it ever going up that much during their mission at all, but agreed again – otherwise the book would not have existed.
Janine: To add a bit more about Daniel, one thing I did like about Daniel’s development and that was that he gradually lost some of his naivete over the course of the book. That was a trajectory I enjoyed. Daniel starts the book as an open, vulnerable and trusting person, while Gennady is the more cynical one. But as time goes on, and especially with regard to a connection to another person that Daniel has (I’m trying to avoid spoilers) as well as with his greater experience with sex between men, he becomes in some ways more experienced and more of a pragmatist. And Gennady meanwhile becomes more trusting and vulnerable, more of a romantic, even.
I felt, too, that corresponding with that was another shift, one in the narrative, which is that we start out knowing more about Daniel than we do about Gennady but by the end of the book we know almost as much about Gennady, and in my case, at least, I felt he became more and more of a focal point as the book went on. I thought it was interesting the way that mirrored the progress of their openness to each other as characters.
Sirius: I am not sure if Daniel lost his openness, naivety, etc. I mean, he grew up, so I agree that he lost some of it as most people probably would in my opinion. But even if I not completely agree, I absolutely love your reading – that the characters arcs mirror each other. I am also not sure about Gennady becoming more open and vulnerable, I think he just became a person in love contrary to not believing in true love when the story began.
Or do you mean he became more open to Daniel?
Janine: More open to Daniel is part of what I meant but I was also thinking about:
Sirius: What did you think of the pacing of the story?
Janine: The first two-thirds felt a little slow. I enjoyed it anyway because I love the author’s voice and I liked getting to know the characters and their relationship. But until the last third the book felt like something that could be compressed into a novella. The last third was very different from that. A lot of things happened, big things, and there were plot turns I didn’t expect. I have seen some readers complain about the last third but it was my favorite part of the book. What did you think about the pacing?
Sirius: It was strange about the pacing for me. I absolutely agree that it was too slow. It took me several days to get past the first half, that slow it was for me. I mean, to me their investigation was mostly just the vehicle to get them to get to know each other better, as you said it was not the main focus of the book, but I just wished it was more interesting than what we were given instead. I don’t have a particular attachment to the voice, so I guess I was a little bored during the first half. Having said that, I am going to say something that could probably considered contradictory.
Janine: The biggest problem I had with the book was not the pacing but that the characters took terrible risks. Daniel especially.
Ultimately what made the book work for me, what made me love it despite my frustration was that:
Spoiler (BIG SPOILER): Show
Okay, I want to talk about Aster Glenn Gray’s writing style and voice next – and this is going to be long because I can’t help myself. Cleo has said that her books are deceptively simple and I think that’s a wonderful description. I think my favorite thing about her writing is the way she writes emotions. Her characters often seem like simple and straightforward people but their emotions are not—their emotions are often messy and confusing. And what she captures that so well is the negotiation of trust, of what a character is willing to admit to vs. what they can’t bear to say.
There’s a scene where Gennady is discussing a failed relationship, and then he stops and we get this thought:
Suddenly he did not want to talk about it anymore. It was like Tyutchev said, a thought once uttered is untrue. To say anything, to try to reduce this complexity of feelings to words, inevitably simplified it so much that it became almost a lie.
I loved the precision of that line, the pinpointing of exactly what it is that Gennady is feeling at that moment. That’s another thing she does really well.
A lot of the tension in Gray’s stories derives from that negotiation of how much to open up; it’s like she asks a lot of her characters in terms of how much they are willing to bare their souls, and she shows how it’s scary and that it can be wounding, for a vulnerable person to shed their layers of, not exactly defenses, self-containment is a better word. But that this is also what we need to do to find our happiness and what is even more fundamental, to find our selves.
Her books are, in essence, about the fragility of the human heart. And she communicates that on more than one level. For me, one of the best lines in the book that captured this was in a scene where Easter eggs have been decorated but rather than being hollowed they are hard boiled.
Gennady came over to inspect the eggs. He picked one up, and looked surprised to find it so heavy. “You didn’t blow out the insides?” he asked.
“Every year I tell them to do that,” Daniel told him, “and every year they decorate hard-boiled eggs.”
“Oh, but they’re so much more beautiful when they last only a few hours,” Anna objected.
Later on, there is this:
“Perhaps it is just as well,” Gennady mused. “Hollow eggs are very delicate. It would be very difficult to carry them home without breaking them.”
That’s such a lovely analogy for the ephemeral nature of Daniel and Gennady’s time together, their inability to bring each other home, and the fragility of their relationship. And that encapsulates why I love her voice, too. This wistfulness touches something in me.
Do you have any thoughts on her voice and style?
Sirius: I also love your in-depth discussion of her style but I may have to bow out of it. I am not attached to it but also I am probably just unable to do in depth analysis of the sentences.
Janine: No worries.
Okay, I am going to reserve most of my other thoughts for the comments, but I did have one last question I wanted to ask you in the review. What (trying to avoid spoilers) did you think about the ending? I loved the ending. I loved that it had Gray’s characteristic wistfulness and poignancy. I read it as an HFN, though apparently some readers did not. What about you?
Sirius: You know re: ending, also trying to avoid spoilers. I liked it too, but—
Janine: You’re right about that of course but I thought that they would make a different choice.
Sirius: Sign me up for that ending :)
Janine: What is your grade for Honeytrap, Sirius?
Sirius: My grade is a B what about you?
Janine: It’s a B+ and a recommended read for me.