Synopses & Reviews
In Past Perfect,
Susan Isaacs gives us one of her most glorious characters ever: bright, buoyant, and borderline luscious Katie Schottland. Katie seems to have the ideal life: a great husband, a precocious and winning ten-year-old son, and a dream job -- writer for the long-running TV series Spy Guys.
But all is not as splendid as it should be because writing about the espionage business isn't nearly as satisfying as working in it.
Fifteen years earlier, Katie was in the CIA. She loved her job (to say nothing of her boss, the mysterious Benton Mattingly). Yet just as she was sensing she was in line for a promotion, she was fired -- escorted off the premises by two extremely hulking security types. Why? No one would tell her: when you're expelled from the Agency, warm friends immediately become icy ex-colleagues who won't risk their security clearances by talking to you.
Until that day, Katie was where she wanted to be. Coming from a family of Manhattan superachievers, she too had a job she not only adored but a job that made her, in the family tradition, a Someone. Fifteen years later, Katie is still stuck on her firing. Was she set up? Or did she make some terrible mistake that cost lives? She believes that if she could discover why they threw her out, she might be at peace.
On the day she's rushing to get her son off to summer camp, Katie gets a surprise call from former Agency colleague Lisa Golding. "A matter of national importance," says Lisa, who promises to reveal the truth about the firing -- if Katie will help her. Lisa was never very good at truth-telling, though she swears she's changed her ways. Katie agrees to speak with her, but before she can, Lisa vanishes.
Maturity and common sense should keep Katie in the bright, normal world of her present life, away from the dark intrigues of the past. But she needs to know. As she takes just a few steps to find out, one ex-spy who might have the answers dies under suspicious circumstances. Another former agent is murdered. Could it be there's a list? If so, is Katie now on it? And who will be the next to go?
"Isaacs's 11th novel has fewer sparks flying than nets dragging, but most fans won't mind a bit, given the amount of outside-the-bedroom adventure. Despite reinventing herself as the author of the novel Spy Guys and the creator of the resultant TV show, Katie Schottland remains wounded by her still-unexplained firing from the CIA, where she wrote intelligence briefs as the Cold War ended, 13 years earlier. When she gets a distress call from an old co-worker, Lisa Golding, who subsequently disappears, Katie plunges back into the notes she smuggled out of the office. She seeks help from an old flame and another ex-agent (now a log-cabin recluse) who helps her trace three of Lisa's former charges at the CIA, East German asylum seekers transported to America and given new names. When two of them turn up dead within weeks of each other, Katie decides to give chase to locate the third before the woman becomes the next casualty. And she still hopes she'll coerce her ex-employer to give up the truth about her termination. The operations stuff is well-done throughout. Katie's relationship with her sweet vet husband adds little, but TV show based scenes are diverting, and her fixation on her last job is sharply funny and true-to-life." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Filled with well-rounded characters and good humor, this novel, like Isaacs's previous works...could be a best seller." Library Journal
"Isaacs' thriller is complicated enough to keep you guessing until the end." Kirkus Reviews
"Isaacs...can be counted on to ring cash registers, and if this isn't her best effort, it does offer a cast of reasonably engaging characters headed by Katie, a woman determined once and for all to make peace with her past." Booklist
"Susan Isaacs has an incredibly good ear for dialogue and a very sharp eye for the silly and stupid things people really do. Picture yourself laughing out loud while sitting on the edge of your seat and furiously flipping pages. The clever plot, the quick pace, and the pitch-perfect writing are good clues that Past Perfect was written by a master storyteller." Nelson DeMille, author of Wild Fire
"I love Susan Isaacs! Her books come straight from the heart, and her characters are smart, funny, and feisty enough to be your best girlfriend not only for three hundred pages, but for life. Past Perfect introduces Katie Schottland a terrific galpal who packs her kid off to summer camp and sleuths as a CIA analyst with equal style. Put simply, Past Perfect is perfect!" Lisa Scottoline, author of Dirty Blonde
"There has to be a name for the literary form Susan Isaacs has invented: the funny scary book. The woman who made us laugh as well as shiver in fear over a murder investigation in Compromising Positions has done the same thing for the CIA and international espionage. Past Perfect made me laugh, but it also kept me jumping out of bed every time a floorboard creaked in my old house." Sara Paretsky, author of Fire Sale
Having been fired from her CIA dream job without an explanation thirteen years earlier, cable television writer Katie Schottland is enlisted for help by a former colleague who offers insight into the mystery of Katie's dismissal. By the author of Any Place I Hang My Hat. 150,000 first printing.
From the New York Times bestselling author of Any Place I Hang My Hat, Compromising Positions, and Shining Through comes a wonderful new novel about a woman ousted from the CIA who, years later, finds herself back in the game.
Fifteen years ago, Katie Schottland snagged her dream job as an analyst for the CIA. She worked for the Agency for a glorious two years, just as the Soviet bloc was collapsing, and the Cold War coming to an end. Then she was shown to the door without an explanation as to why she was fired. Nothing else I'd done or would ever do would ever feel so right. Then it was gone....I couldn't find another job.
Katie spent the next few years agonizing over her loss and her own shortcomings until she gave birth to her son and, soon after, a novel called Spy Guys. Now she writes for a cable TV series spawned from her novel, but still misses the espionage work she once loved.
A phone call from a former colleague changes everything. The woman, once involved in preparing high level refugees for their new American lives, begs for Katie's help in return for answers about her past. She, it seems, can explain why Katie so suddenly became persona non grata. But can Katie go from writing the fluffy, fictional Spy Guys to surviving in the world of espionage where the bullets are real and hardly anyone lives happily ever after?
About the Author
Susan Isaacs is the author of nine novels, including Any Place I Hang My Hat; Long Time No See; and Red, White and Blue, and one nonfiction title. She is a former editor of Seventeen and a freelance political speechwriter. She currently lives on Long Island with her husband. All of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
Katie Schottland appears to have it all: a great husband and son, an upscale Manhattan lifestyle, and a dream job writing for the television series Spy Guys. But an unexplained incident from her past has long troubled Katie: fifteen years earlier she was dismissed from her post as an analyst at the CIA with no warning and no explanation.
When Lisa Golding, a former Agency colleague, telephones Katie out of the blue and asks for her assistance with "a matter of national importance," she promises, in exchange, to reveal the truth about Katie's firing. Lisa disappears soon after, and Katie finds herself drawn from a fictional spy world into a dark, intriguing real-life case of espionage.
As the body count begins to rise, Katie realizes she might be an assassin's next target but is determined to complete her self-imposed mission. Driven by a need to know what really happened all those years ago, she risks her marriage, her television career, and even her life to finally make peace with the past.
1. For fifteen years Katie has obsessed over her termination from the CIA. Why was working at the Agency so important to Katie? How much of her fascination with the job stemmed from her interest in espionage novels and films? And why, as Katie wonders, does being fired "still have such power" over her?
2. The people in Katie's life offer opinions as to why she's so intent on delving into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal from the CIA -- Maddy theorizes that Katie is looking for an adventure, while Jacques suggests it's because her fortieth birthday is looming. What is your theory as to why Katie so zealously pursues answers about her past?
3. In chapter one Katie reveals that she has had a "lifelong preference for fantasy over reality." At any point in the story, did you question Katie's judgment about the events taking place or the decisions she made? Why or why not? In what ways does her fascination with espionage stories hinder or help during her investigation?
4. With Nicky off to camp for several weeks, Katie had envisioned using the time to rekindle her "marriage flame." Why, then, does she prioritize her investigation above her marriage?
5. What is your opinion of Adam? How supportive is he of Katie's search for answers? What do you suppose the future holds for their relationship?
6. When contemplating why she might have been fired, Katie asserts, "I was confident the decision had nothing to do with Ben." What makes her so certain that Ben was blameless in her termination? How is her visit to Ben's Washington, D.C., office a turning point in how she sees her former boss?
7. Discuss Katie's relationship with her parents and her sister, Maddy. How much of Katie's concern about being fired from the CIA had to do with their opinion of her? How is Katie now viewed by her parents and sister?
8. "You've involved yourself in a dangerous business...You know it, but you don't appreciate it," Maddy remarks to Katie. Do you agree or disagree with Maddy's observation of Katie, and why? What basis does she have for assuming Katie doesn't fully comprehend she that might be placing herself in harm's way?
9. After Jacques and Huff reveal to Katie why she was fired, she has the answer she was seeking. Why, then, does she continue to look into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal? What more does she want?
10. What motivates Katie to travel to Florida and speak with Maria Schneider in person? What warning signs does she miss during her conversation with Maria in the park?
11. Discuss the CIA's offer of restitution to Katie. Ultimately, does Katie get the closure she was seeking? Why or why not?
12. What is your overall impression of Past Perfect? How does this book compare to other novels you've read by Susan Isaacs?
Enhance Your Book Club
In the spirit of Ian Fleming's suave spy, James Bond, mix up a round of martinis -- shaken, not stirred, of course. Or, like Katie does in Past Perfect, indulge in hot chocolate and Mallomars.
Make it an espionage-themed gathering when you discuss Past Perfect and show a classic film, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Three Days of the Condor, or Dr. No.
Visit www.simonsays.com to watch a video clip of Susan Isaacs discussing her fiction and the writing process.
A Discussion with Susan Isaacs
Where do you get your ideas?
I don't think there's been a time since I've been answering questions that I haven't been asked where I find my ideas for novels. I hope my answer is enlightening, although I don't know if it will be helpful. That's because each writer's inspiration is as unique as his or her fingerprints.
My "ideas" come to me as characters. Before I wrote my first novel, Compromising Positions, I was reading a dangerous number of mysteries a week: three or four. Suddenly, a character popped into my head. Like me, she was a housewife on Long Island with two young children and a husband who commuted into Manhattan. Unlike me, she wanted to find out who killed...well, I had no idea who had been murdered, but since she seemed to be hanging around in my head, I decided to figure out a mystery for her to solve.
The same holds true for my novels that aren't mysteries. For Shining Through, a legal secretary came into my head wanting me to tell her story -- about being in love with one of the law firm's partners, even though social-class differences supposedly put him out of her league. I wanted to give her some way to prove her worth, to herself if not to him. But it wasn't until World War II popped into my head, a time when ordinary people often displayed extraordinary courage, that I had my story.
Other writers use the big What If. Something arouses their curiosity and they ask themselves: What if a savvy businesswoman turned stay-at-home mother starts to believe her house is haunted? What if a couple in the midst of a bitter divorce finds themselves snowed in for a week?
Some authors may get intrigued by a story or situation they hear about on the news or just in casual conversation. Henry James is said to have gotten the idea for Washington Square from a story he overheard at a dinner party. Just a phrase or a word might get the creative juices flowing. "Seduced and abandoned," "Poor little rich girl," "Won the lottery." There are writers who give a new spin to an old work: a fairy tale such as Cinderella, or the biblical story of Job.
Finally, a would-be writer or an old pro can wonder, What's the book I most want to read that hasn't yet been written?
Where did you get the idea for Past Perfect?
Before I wrote Past Perfect, some random ideas were floating around in my head. The first was what a tight grip the past has on the present. For so many of us, a long-ago relationship (a lost love, a callous parent) or an event that happened years earlier (getting fired, being the victim of an unjust accusation) still has so much power in our lives. Friends advise, "You're thirty/fifty/eighty. Get over it." Yet we can't.
Another idea: Like so many other Americans, I was thinking about Iraq. How did we get it so wrong? More specifically, How did the CIA, an agency filled with supposedly smart people, make such bad calls? In Shining Through, which was set in New York, Washington, and Berlin during World War II, I'd written about America's spy organization, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services]. The CIA grew out of that group, and I'd read a fair amount about its development -- everything from spy novels to books on American foreign policy to memoirs by ex-spooks. So I got to thinking how the Agency had gotten it wrong before: the Bay of Pigs invasion, failing to predict the rapid implosion of East Germany.
And suddenly I had a new novel. Katie Schottland had her dream job in the CIA -- and then lost it in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She never learned why she was fired, but the pain of that dismissal still plagued her years later. Sure, she had what most people would say was a great life, but...That's one of the joys of writing fiction. Disparate ideas meet and suddenly, whammo. It's rather like falling in love.
Did you always want to be a writer?
As a child, I wanted to be a cowgirl. Perhaps that seems odd for a kid growing up in Brooklyn, but even then I had the ability to be anyone I wanted to be -- in my head, if not in reality. Writing was always something I did reasonably well, but it didn't occur to me that I could make a living by it. After college I worked at Seventeen magazine. I began by writing advice to the lovelorn, and after a few years I became a senior editor. I left Seventeen to raise my children, and I worked part-time as a political speechwriter. When my second child was two, it occurred to me that I wanted to write fiction.
Of all the books you've written, which is your favorite?
There's a writers' cliché about books being like children. Well, it's true. You love all your children, even the goofy ones.
Do you write longhand or use a computer?
A computer and, more recently, speech recognition. I sit there with my headset, and dictate. To me, it's a boon because I speak faster than I type. Also, for some reason, I focus better using this method. Naturally, there's a downside. The program I use doesn't seem too comfortable with a New York accent, even with the extra training I gave it. So when I had the protagonist of my new novel say "I opened the door," what I saw on my monitor was "I opened the Torah." Ultimately, I don't think it matters what method a writer uses. Longhand, typewriter, quill and ink: they're simply tools.
Do you know the whole story before you start writing? Do you make an outline?
For me, making an outline is a way to work out the plot, since with me, the characters come first. Also, it's easier to see the structure of the novel that way, and I have the security of knowing where it's going. Sometimes, the outline is a snap. I guess that's when my subconscious has already done the heavy lifting. However, on a couple of books, including Lily White, I took almost a year to work out what was going to happen. Naturally, I was petrified the whole time that I was losing my marbles and/or having the world's most unconquerable writer's block. However, I know many authors who don't bother with an outline, who feel it's too constraining. There is no one right way to write.
Are any of your characters based on people you know?
I never consciously pick someone I know and put him or her into a book. The fun of writing, as well as the agony, is in creating a new universe and populating it. Also, I don't want to get a lot of grief from Uncle Joe or my down-the-street neighbor that I didn't portray them in a flattering light.
To learn more about Susan Isaacs please visit www.susanisaacs.com.