The Company We Keep is a memoir by Robert and Dayna Baer about their careers with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA – aka “The Company”) – and the aftermath of being an ex-spy couple.
Bob and Dayna alternate as chapter authors. For the majority of the book the two are married to other people, and for much of it they are operating in different regions of the world (or at least in different countries). The difficulties each encounters when they try to marry a career as a government agent with a family life are key elements underpinning many of the early chapters. These elements are not the main focus of the first part of the book, but are rather sprinkled throughout a series of anecdotes describing Dayna’s career path from desk worker performing background checks to elite “Protective Operations” agent and Bob’s travails through the downfall of a number of Central Asian/Middle Eastern governments.
While working together – and while their individual marriages are rapidly devolving – the two begin to grow closer and after a series of harrowing experiences in the Middle East, they eventually realize they have fallen in love. Realizing the pressures that their professional lives played on their previous relationships, the two decide to leave government work and the remainder of the memoir recounts their reintegration into the “normal” non-spy world as a couple.
If this summary leaves you a little confused and not entirely sure about where the book is going, you are not alone. That is rather how I felt throughout.
The writing is easy and engaging and the anecdotes are interesting. They are also, however, fairly random and at times feel very disjointed. The linkages between sections are not always clear, and while I enjoyed being presented with dual perspectives, it took me some time to realize what the book was actually doing was tracing the course of the two career paths from parallel to perpendicular. The last several chapters regarding the couple’s decision to adopt a child from Pakistan are a prime example of the disjointed feel of the memoir.
On a pure story level, these were some of the most interesting chapters in the book. As you would imagine, difficulties ensue and local politics (and the couple’s past lives with the CIA) interfere heavily in the adoption process. The struggle to deal with the highs and lows of the adoption – from the joy at first seeing “their” baby girl to the shock of learning that the original judge changed his mind about letting them adopt – was presented in a straightforward and heartfelt way by both parents. But it was difficult to see how this really fit in with the larger story.
The book jacket presents The Company We Keep as a memoir about the impact of a spy life on family; most of the story simply did not read that way. Rather, it read like agents sitting around a campfire reminiscing about the good ol’ days – which, as is often the case, were not always good. While this does provide some interesting storytelling, it does not provide a particularly coherent narrative. All in all it was an enjoyable enough read, but it would have been better had it been a little more cohesive.
A former corporate attorney and government relations/health policy executive, Jill-Elizabeth walked away from that world (well, skipped actually) and toward a more literary life (equally challenging, but infinitely more enjoyable). If you enjoyed this review, please visit her at Jill-Elizabeth.com, the official home of All Things Jill-Elizabeth – that is, all of the teehees, musings, rants, book reviews, writing exercises, and witticisms of her burgeoning writing career.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Crown Publishing. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.