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Review: Vera and the Ambassador

vera and the ambassadorTitle: Vera and the Ambassador: Escape and Return
Authors: Vera and Donald Blinken
Genre: Memoir/Autobiography
Year: 2009
Acquired: Free review copy
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

One Sentence Summary: Vera Blinken, a Hungarian refugee, is given the chance to help her country move out of Communism when her husband Donald is appointed ambassador to Hungary by President Clinton.

One Sentence Review: The book’s confusing organization and diplomatic tone take the excitement out of what should be a much more interesting story.

Long Summary: As a child, Vera and her mother fled from Hungary after Soviet control nearly destroyed the country. When she came to the United States, Vera became a proud American citizen, made a name for herself in a number of organizations, and met her husband, Donald. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Donald was appointed to be the ambassador to Hungary, a role he and Vera took on as partners.

Vera’s Hungarian roots and familiarity with local customs won the pair the respect of the Hungarian people. During their tenure, Hungary struggled to move away from it’s Communist roots and towards joining NATO. While Donald worked to bring capitalism and benefits to the Hungarian economy, Vera worked the domestic front mobilizing women and opening the embassy to Hungarian citizens and business people. By the end of their term, Hungary was a very different country from where they started.

Long Review: As my low rating and one sentence review indicate, I wasn’t a fan of this book. Before I try to explain why, I should point out that I have high expectations for memoir, and my patience for things like lack of structure and dry plot lines is very low. Vera and Donald have a fascinating story, but the book doesn’t do a good job of showing me why their lives are so interesting.

I think my problems with the book stem from the book’s structure and overall lack of organization. The book is divided into four sections and the narration alters between Vera and Donald. Within each section, the narrator shares a series of vignettes and scenes from their perspective. It reads almost like a diary, except a diary that doesn’t go in chronological order.

What’s odd is that despite the sections, there was almost no discernible plot-driven momentum to move the story along. There’s some sense of overall chronology — it starts with Vera fleeing Hungary as a child and ends with Vera and Donald leaving Hungary after their diplomatic post is over — but within sections events jump backwards and forwards in time almost at random. It’s hard to follow the various story lines and events because there’s no well-followed internal timeline. I found this extremely frustrating.

The other frustrating part of the book was how, well, diplomatic, the whole thing felt. There’s hardly any negative information about anyone involved — most officials and staff members were either “charming” or “efficient” or “dedicated,” nothing more interesting than that. Take this note from Donald about preparing for a visit from President Clinton:

Many ambassadors, past and present, are wary of presidential advance teams, complaining about their indifference to local advice and their failure to show the embassy proper consideration. During my tenure, we had only positive experience, and we always found the advance teams congenial, very professional, and always courteous. Still, the compressed time frame put all of us on edge.

That’s just, hygienic, in how little it actually says about what it’s like to prep for a presidential visit. That process has to be more interesting than the book makes it sound. Passages like this are throughout the book; the most interesting parts of negotiating with Hungarian officials about military bases or NATO get glossed over in favor of mentions about Vera or Donald’s achievements outside of their work in Hungary. The tone comes off as self-important and dry.

The book does have some good qualities. For someone less bothered by structure than I am, the book does a nice job of showing the varied tasks and roles of an ambassador. It’s not always tense negotiations with uncooperative foreign officials or visits from important U.S. figures. There are a lot of lunches and cultural events, celebrations and state dinners. Vera’s sections got at this side of the ambassador’s role most effectively, which makes the book a good overall picture of what this particular job is about.

Generally though, this book just didn’t work for me. I almost gave up about half way through when there was an extended story about the diplomatic implications of spilling orange juice, but decided to stick it out in case it got better. Things did pick up near the end as the story focused more on Hungary’s interest in NATO and the end of the term, but overall I felt the book didn’t live up to it’s potential. People reading this more for the history and politics angles might enjoy it, but as a plot-driven memoir it wasn’t effective for me.

Other Reviews: The Book Lady’s Blog — (Rebecca’s review is more positive than mine, so please go check it out for a second opinion!)

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nicole October 21, 2009, 10:35 am

    I think it’s doubtful that I would enjoy this as well. I think that memoirs need o be shaped and have somewhat of a plot line, and I like them to be balanced. Why write a memoir if you’re not going to be honest?

    • Kim October 26, 2009, 4:47 pm

      Nicole: I feel the same way — if you’re going to write a memoir, don’t skim over the events because you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings or something. That’s what makes it interesting!

  • Lisa October 21, 2009, 12:05 pm

    I’ve noticed the structure problem with other memoirs/biographies. I think authors/editors are trying so hard to avoid a straight line through history that they get too carried away with mixing it up. Makes it hard to keep track of who’s who or build up any kind of rapport with the characters.

    • Kim October 26, 2009, 4:48 pm

      Lisa: Yes, you’re right. Structure is really important to good memoir. Sometimes snippets work, but if you’re telling a story with progressive momentum, the storylines need to be chronological. It’s really hard to make non-chronological work well (even though lots of people try!).

  • Kailana October 21, 2009, 12:12 pm

    Sounds boring! I think I will give it a pass… I am impressed you read the entire thing!

    • Kim October 26, 2009, 4:49 pm

      Kailana: It did pick up near the end, after the part where I contemplated not finishing. I’m glad I read it, even if in the end I wasn’t that impressed.

  • Kathy October 21, 2009, 1:03 pm

    I don’t think this is the book for me either.

    • Kim October 26, 2009, 4:50 pm

      Kathy: It has such potential — I wanted it to be great, so much, but it just didn’t work well for me.

  • Nymeth October 21, 2009, 1:31 pm

    Yeah, it doesn’t sound like it’d work for me either :/ Ah well…hopefully you’ll enjoy your next read a LOT more!

    • Kim October 26, 2009, 4:50 pm

      Nymeth: I definitely did! I checked out some new fiction, Waiting for Columbus, from the library and finished it in about three days — it was great!

  • Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog October 21, 2009, 5:48 pm

    I had much the same reaction when I reviewed it yesterday (read my review here ) but I did give a higher rating b/c the story was interesting…just hard to find.

    I hate it when books have such potential and just don’t live up.

    • Kim October 26, 2009, 4:51 pm

      Rebecca: My rating might be a little bit harsh, since it probably reflects my disappointment more than it reflects the merits of the book. But I was really bummed the book wasn’t better because I wanted it to be.

  • softdrink October 21, 2009, 7:58 pm

    I saw Rebecca’s review yesterday and thought it sounded dry. I’d be much more interested in a story focusing on Hungary.

    • Kim October 26, 2009, 4:53 pm

      softdrink: It is pretty dry — some parts could have been interesting but just weren’t. I liked the perspective though, an outsider/insider exploring a country. And I like government diplomacy and stuff, so that’s why the angle seemed like it had potential for me.