I didn't fall in love with this as much as I did with the book Ireland by the same author but it was still a good read and I enjoyed it.
Delaney's main skill is that he is exceptional at crafting a genuine Irish environment that it is so easy to get sucked into. And to further attest to this skill, he can do it in seemingly any time period. This specific book takes place in the first half of the 20th century, mostly in the World War II era. Ben comes off as a reliable narrator so it is easy to take his word for the events occurring. Also, probably because I am an oral historian myself, I loved how his story was structured with the different journal entries from both Ben and Kate. The competing viewpoints seemed to make it more credible.
I found the character of Ben very likable. I empathized with his heartbreak and was rooting for him to find his long lost wife. I also understood his less noble emotions and forgave him for them due to the immense amount of stress he was under. I was more conflicted about his actions following Kate around all over Europe. He wasn't especially supportive of her actions but followed her along out of what seemed like a misguided sense of loyalty.
However, I have very different mixed emotions towards Kate. Initially, she comes off as a very sly, independent woman skillful at her craft. But she later loses some of her credibility and comes of as manipulative and willing to do almost anything to get what she wants. It's almost cruel how she toys with Ben's emotions and in the end, does very little herself to actually help him find Venetia. She discounts his objections to her spying schemes and puts his life in frequent danger seemingly without a second thought. Also, her obsession with American Captain Miller is unhealthy at the least but more like stalkerish and disturbing. Her initial mission to find a German former client is brave and somewhat honorable but the underhanded way she uses that to blackmail Capt. Miller into marriage is nothing less than shameful. The manipulative way she forces him into leaving his girl at home behind is also abominable and it would seem to be contradictory to the ethics of her profession. She makes the less than perfect men that she matches agree to behave honestly and honorable toward their matches yet she seems to make exceptions to these expectations when she is the one involved.
On top of her initial inappropriate behavior towards Captain Miller and blackmailing him into marriage, she acts as if she is even more exceptional when she finds herself in the common position of being a military wife awaiting her husband's return. She cannot just stay at home and await word like the thousands of other women in her position. No, instead she has to exploit whatever other connections she has in order to perform another completely unnecessary covert mission to track down Miller. As if that weren't bad enough, she drags Ben along on this idiotic mission despite his frequent protests encouraging her to pursue an alternate course of action. In the end, both are lucky to escape with their lives, Kate would not have at all if not for Ben's actions, and the whole ordeal is fruitless as they return with hardly any more information on Captain Miller than when they left. So after she barely returns home with her life, she remains home and carries on her business until she receives word, right? Of course not.
She moves to New York City, dragging poor Ben along with her, to pine away after her long lost love and harass the soldiers disembarking from every single ship that makes it in to the harbor. When forcing Ben to endure this idiocy is not enough, she purchases a small menagerie of animals and ships them cross country to promote her matchmaking business relocating to Kansas. Cause that makes a load of sense... How exactly does a giraffe have anything to do with dating, love or marriage? When it seems like she might just accept that Captain Miller is not returning, she ropes Ben into a coerced engagement. Kate has become adept at taking advantage of Ben's honorable nature anytime she feels like it.
In the end, it is tragic but somewhat satisfying when she gets her just desserts in the form of her husband's return. Thankfully, this gives Ben an out from what surely would have been a doomed marriage. Captain Miller does return but he is only a shell of the man he once was. His transformation is a moving testimony of the wartime effects of shell shock. While his fate is regrettable, it does make me smile to think of how all Kate's meddling and manipulation turn out for her. After all her pulling strings to find a handsome American to provide for her, she instead must be caretaker for an invalid and limit her once expansive practice to a small town in Kansas, so far away from the home she loves.
The ongoing theme of this book is also very well done. The idea of neutrality has several different nuances and interpretations. The most obvious interpretation of neutrality in this book is Ireland's position during the war. Even though the political administration of the country tries to remain neutral, it can't really enforce the same requirements upon its citizens. Thus you have many Irish enlisting in the British military and blatant disregard for neutrality by some such as Kate and Ben. So then the question becomes 'is Ireland truly neutral'?
The second interpretation of this neutrality theme is the question if a man and a woman can be strictly friends. Personally, my inclination is to say yes. I have many male friends with whom I have a platonic relationship. As a matter of fact, I have more male friends than female. However, in this book, it doesn't seem that simple. It seems like Ben is perfectly capable of that kind of friendship but Kate is not due to her dubious nature. Perhaps if she was more honorable and less manipulative, it would be possible, but as far as the main friendship in this story, Kate is too guilty of betrayal to maintain an equal friendship.
In this book, Delaney's masterful storytelling emerges and proves itself once again but the story is not as pleasant as some if his others. Indeed, a good story need not always be pleasant and it is a mark of skill to create a character one hates just as much as it is to create a lovable one. But however wonderfully crafted a story, this one didn't have the same appeal to me as his others and I lost some of the previous magic in this realistic tale. Ireland captured the magic and lore of its homeland while this narrative was about a much darker era of its history.