Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's EnemiesThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My expectations for this book were pretty high: I’ve followed Jason Fagone’s magazine work for a while and know him as a strong writer and evocative storyteller. I bought The Woman Who Smashed Codes for myself as a birthday gift and was excited to crack it open.

Let me tell you: It delivered above and beyond my expectations.

First, let’s just look at the physical hardback. Published by Dey St., an imprint of HarperCollins, the book is 444 pages thick (don’t let that scare you — notes and the index occupy a sizable chunk) and is beautifully designed. Many of the chapters have an accompanying photo on the first page and a quote to set the tone for the oncoming narrative. The typeface is welcoming to the eyes, and the paper is soft and thick.

Now, the writing. Fagone’s nonfiction narrative draws you into the story and introduces you to scenes and characters in a way that makes you want to keep reading and reading. The book is divided into three sections, each of which encompasses a specific period of time in Elizebeth Smith’s (later, Friedman’s) journey in codebreaking and in life with William Friedman. Each chapter ends with questions that drive the narrative forward, propelling the reader into the next chapter and then the next.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is truly narrative nonfiction. Thoroughly researched (with pages of notes to prove it) and grounded in history, it doesn’t at all read like a textbook. It reads like a story. One with surprises, mystery, intrigue, and even romance in various corners. The narrative about Nazi spy operations in South America was especially interesting to me, as I wasn’t familiar with that part of history, and the drama around U.S. government agencies, particularly the FBI versus everyone else, was fascinating.

This book followed through on the promise to educate and inform regarding World War II history and a particular woman codebreaker, while also entertaining and delighting on a storytelling level — from overarching narrative all the way down to the sentence level. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they know everything about World War II, has an interest in women’s history, or simply enjoys a good book.

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