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Book Review: Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow is a thrilling novel full of horror and passion. The story follows two characters: Dominika, a Russian, and Nate, an American — both tangled in the dangerous world of spying for opposing countries.

Dominika is dedicated, passionate, thrill-seeking, and short-tempered. And Nate is a fiery man who is very clever and intelligent. He is more logical and levelheaded, although still has a deep heart.

Dominika was born with a special gift: her extraordinary vision that lets her see the color of people’s auras. When music plays, she can see distinct notes right in front of her eyes. Her ability to see music is what makes her such a talented dancer.

“Dominika gravely explained that when the music played, or when her father read aloud to her, colors would fill the room. Different colors, some bright, some dark, sometimes they ‘jumped in the air’ and all Dominika had to do was follow them. It was how she could remember so much.”

After graduating high school with a particular admiration for history and political debates (due to her strong patriotism,) she attends ballet school in pursuit of becoming a professional ballerina. However, Dominika’s career plans are halted when a jealous couple on the team plots to break her leg, thus destroying her capabilities as a dancer.

“In young adulthood she had learned to cope with the buistvo, the mounting rage, but now she let it grow, tasted it in her throat.”

Following the tragic, sudden death of her father, Dominika is approached by her uncle  with an offer to essentially become a Russian spy. Desperate and lost, Dominika feels she has no choice now but to accept. From here on, her loyalty will be tested: to her country, to her family, to her dignity and principles, and most importantly to her own self.

Dominika attends Sparrow School, where she trains to become an official “sparrow.” Here, is where she is taught in depth about the art of seduction. Sparrows use not just their bodies, but their magical charm and quick wit, to gain precious information for the Russian government.

“This school, this mansion secluded behind walls topped with broken glass, was an engine of the State that institutionalized and dehumanized love. It didn’t count… it was training, like ballet school.”

The trials and tribulations Dominika goes through prove her strength, as the harsh reality sinks in that being strong is her only option if she wants to survive. Too late to back out now. At one point she witnesses a man get brutally, painfully murdered, as his blood spats on her body.

Finally, Dominka meets Nate, her next assignment. Nate seems to always have a deep purple aura, presenting honesty and calmness. Her mission is to recruit him for Russia, while Nate has a counter-mission to recruit Dominika for the USA.

“Dominika played it slow, indifferent. She was correct, reserved, a conscious counterbalance to his shambling American informality. She constantly told herself not to be so nervous. When he looked at her she knew from his expression that he was unsuspecting. He doesn’t know what this is, she thought with a thrill. The CIA officer doesn’t know who he’s up against.”

Although Dominika is successful at capturing Nate’s attention, she quickly realizes that he is different from anyone else. Her feelings build, yet her loyalty to Russia remains firm. As the two get to know each other, Nate notices how triggered and defensive she is when criticism of the Russian government comes up.

“God, she’s serious, thought Nate. Typical Russian, afraid of putting a foot wrong. But he liked her reserve, her underlying sensuality, the way she looked at him with her blue eyes. He especially liked the way she pronounced his name, ‘Neyt.'”

It is not long before Dominika questions the intentions of her team. The murder of an older fellow sparrow, who she saw as her future-self, is the final straw. Dominika can no longer hide her fury as she goes on another date with Nate. At this point, she realizes that she actually has more trust for this American stranger than she does for her own country, even her own family — most especially her evil uncle. And so, she confesses her identity to Nate, who in turn tells her to join his team.

“It’s just that you should learn to get high on something other than adrenaline,’ he said.

“‘You mean like wine?’ she said, and threw the wineglass against the wall. ‘No, thank you. I prefer adrenaline.'”

At this point, the trouble has only just begun. The pair work well together with a rare, strong sense of trust in one another. Still — they know that they cannot let their passion for each other get in the way. Yet of course, passion persists and finds a way to make things very messy…

I really enjoyed this book. This lengthy nearly-600-pager took me a while to finish, although I’m a slow reader anyway. There were some parts that seemed drawn out and skippable. But there were also many parts that had my eyes glued to the pages. The story is intense and shocking.

***Photos used from the adapted film***

The Scarlet Letter

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

Hello, my name is Hester Prynne.

I have a story to tell. The scarlet letter “A” that I bare on my chest speaks for itself. What was intended to be a symbol of sin and punishment, has transformed into a symbol of strength.

During the lonely days when my husband traveled far on a quest to satisfy his thirst for knowledge, I found myself tangled in a love affair with my minister. God was always watching. And perhaps He had forgiven me, for sending me the miracle of life.

The people did not forgive me, however. I was locked away until the birth of my child, Pearl, and then stranded to live a life of seclusion from society. The dirty looks, the judgement, the whispers… as much as I knew I deserved it, the suffering was unbearable. No one spoke to me. The bright scarlet letter “A” had haunted me.

My child was the one thing that no one could ever take away from me. They could outcast me, they could strip me of my dignity, but they could never take away my little Pearl. They called her a demon child, an incarnation of Satan. She hissed at the strangers who casted judgement upon us. And still, I knew she had come from thy heavenly Father. As mischievous as this wild one was, there was something inside of her that proved to be angelic.

It was painful to watch the minister from a distance continue living his holy life in peace. My secrecy protected him… I carried the entire weight of both of our sins… or so it seemed. I had been yet to learn that he had carved a letter “A” on his chest that revealed scarlet red blood. Clutching his hand against his heart became a reflex. He was in fact a tortured soul. It turns out, I wore my sorrows on the outside while he wore them on the inside.

Time went on and I proved myself to be noble. I learned that the human heart is forgiving, and people would generally rather choose love over hatred. The nasty gossip gradually turned into positive comments. Some said my “A” should stand for “Able,” representing how I am able to prove myself. However, the minister was still left to suffer in silence.

Seven years had gone by before I met with the minister in the woods and we discussed everything. It was then, when I revealed to him that his trusted physician was actually my vengeful husband in disguise. He was yet another tortured soul, yet sin was heaviest in his heart, because he was seeking revenge. And so the minister and I made a plan to run away together. He would know his daughter, our little Pearl. The three of us could finally escape our misery and start over. We saw a scarlet red “A” appear in the sky, as if it was a direct message from God Himself!

The whole thing felt like a dream, that night in the woods. In a few days he would deliver his final speech as a minister and then reveal himself to the world. And so, he gave the most inspiring speech you could have ever imagined. The three of us held hands for everyone to see. There was such strong, intense, life-consuming energy in that moment. So powerful that it took my lover’s life away. In his final moment, he thanked God for the chance to make his peace before reaching Heaven’s gate.

I recently reread “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I first read it in high school English class and for some reason I have always felt really drawn to the story. I am typically not a huge fan of the classics, but this one stands out to me. I like the paradox of the nature of Hester Prynne’s character: how she is nonconformist yet submissive at the same time. The way she handles her punishment is graceful. She is strong enough to refuse revealing who Pearl’s father is, and still she dutifully wears her “A” without bargaining or self-pity. I think what amazes me most is how a piece of writing from the 1800s, based on the 1600s, can still be relatable today. It’s universal. It really says so much about society and the nature of heart.