The Lipstick Bureau

by Michelle Gable
Graydon House, December 2022, $28.99

In 1943, Nikola Novotná Clingman, a Czechoslovakian expat who speaks seven languages and has degrees in law and journalism, joins the OSS—against the wishes of her pompous, controlling American husband George, who has just been posted to a high-level government position in Switzerland. Niki hopes the OSS will send her to Europe, where she might be able to get news of her family. She hasn’t heard from them since they refused to emigrate with her when Hitler took over their homeland. But instead of becoming a spy, she’s assigned to Morale Operations. The bureau’s mission is to disseminate propaganda behind enemy lines to discourage and demoralize Axis soldiers. Niki’s small unit is a motley bunch: Will Dewart, a wealthy publisher, Ezra Feldman, a Jewish Romanian refugee and brilliant cartoonist, and a few other men.

After a training stint in Algiers, the group is posted to newly liberated Rome, where things get complicated. After years of fascism and conflict, the city is devastated: looted businesses, bombed-out buildings, severe shortages of food and electricity. The MO team receives little supervision or support from its higher-ups, so Niki—who is brilliant at her work, and endowed with nearly unstoppable determination—devises unorthodox ways to get the job done.

Niki is an engaging protagonist who can be prickly, pigheaded, and insecure, but also smart, empathetic, and confident. Will is handsome, loyal, and humbly aware of his own privilege; Ezra is world-weary and pessimistic; Paloma, a Roman prostitute who befriends Niki, is open and down-to-earth; George is insufferably condescending; and his charming, inept sister Moggy somehow manages to be both clueless and shrewd.

Their compelling story immerses the reader in an authentic setting at a unique moment in time. While there are strong elements of danger and suspense, there’s no crime or spycraft,making this more historical novel than mystery. The questions that propel the narrative are “Will they pull it off?” and where Niki’s relationship with Will is headed along the trajectory from dislike to rapport to attraction.

Opening with Niki and her adult daughter at a 1989 formal dinner honoring the women of the OSS, a part of her life that she has never shared, Michelle Gable’s novel weaves together Niki’s wartime adventures and her feelings about them decades later until they reach a satisfying conclusion. A final Author’s Note explains the inspiration for Niki’s story, and a Selected List of Sources suggests further reading for those interested in learning more about the historical context.

Jean Gazis
Teri Duerr
December 2022
Graydon House