An Insider’s Political Thriller

The cover of State of Terror depicts a graphic red and white American flag against a black background.

Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 and Louise Penny

State of Terror
Simon and Schuster/St. Martin’s Press
320 pages, $30

State of Terror is a political thriller with all the fast-paced thrills and chills you’d expect from Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 and award-winning mystery author Louise Penny. But while it’s a story of politics, terrorism, weapons, and war, ultimately the novel transcends genre to become a celebration of a woman’s love for her country and her battle to protect it, as well as the profound bond of female friendship.

Our heroine is Ellen Adams, the U.S.’s new secretary of state. She’s a 50-something salon-blonde who loves eclairs, wears Spanx, and enjoys an occasional glass of chardonnay. A widow, Ellen’s best friend and sometimes-adviser is Betsy Jameson, who’s based on Clinton’s late real-life friend Betsy Johnson Ebeling. A retired schoolteacher, the fictional Betsy is described as having a face like June Cleaver and the sass of Bette Midler. Together, the two middle-aged women are unstoppable.

When we first meet Ellen, she’s covered in animal excrement—from doing her job, literally willing to get down in the dirt and fight—only to have a Congressional colleague hiss at her, “Dirty woman!” The authors describe her: “She might look like a hobo and smell like fertilizer, but she was the American secretary of state. She loved her country and would do everything in her power to protect it.”

As Ellen battles to figure out the detonation time and place of three dirty bombs set on American soil, she continues to fight in muck both literal and figurative. Ellen and Betsy, on “Air Force Three,” travel to the prime minister’s residence in Pakistan, a thinly veiled Mar-a-Lago in Florida, and the Kremlin in Russia, and meet with stand-ins for Imran Khan, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin. There’s a fun feeling of being in “the room where it happens.”

And we’re privy not just to Ellen’s words, but her thoughts as well—thoughts written by someone who was an actual first lady, senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate. That kind of insider knowledge is something very few thriller writers have access to, and Clinton and Penny make the most of it. And while Ellen’s thoughts show us she’s a sophisticated political chess player, she’s also willing to put her ego aside, to listen, to learn, and even to forgive. She knows those qualities are just as important in politics. There are a few moments that strain belief, but one senses the authors are in on the joke. This novel’s a rollicking page turner, and when things get cartoonish, one character brings it all into perspective with a “Really, Wile E. Coyote. That’s your plan?”

But while the action occasionally pushes credulity, the friendship between Ellen and Betsy never does. When the president compares the duo to Lennon and McCartney, Ellen tells Betsy, “I get to be McCartney.” To which Betsy responds, “Fine. Lennon was the better musician anyway.”

This is fiction, of course, but the threats posed in the story are all too timely, especially with the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan, the rise in domestic terrorism and white supremacy, and ever-present threats from Russia. As Clinton herself says, at the end of her author notes: “It’s up to us to make sure its plot stays fictional.”

MacNeal is the New York Times bestselling author of the award-winning Maggie Hope series. Her first stand-alone thriller, Mother Daughter Traitor Spy, set in L.A. just before Pearl Harbor, will be published by Random House in fall 2022.

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Narcissa Campion (Campion)
MacNeal Has done an impressive job of capturing the spirit, intrigue and heart of this fun book. W proud all the way around.

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