I’m not sure what is meant by a “beach read,” but I think David Baldacci’s 1999 novel, Saving Faith, qualifies under that label. Okay, I’ll look it up; a “beach read” is defined by Book Riot as, “Over time, the term “beach read” began to describe a certain type of book, something that will have mass appeal and isn’t particularly intellectually stimulating.” Sounds right, and what I was conjuring up in my head, anyway. I don’t see that as a knock on the book by any stretch of the imagination! I need escapist books that are just fun to kick back with, and don’t involve me needing to think so much, just like I need fun, escapist movies and television shows. Books can and do serve such a function for me, too. So, in mid-March, I enjoyed this “beach read” immensely.
I’m not entirely certain, but I believe this marks my first time reading a David Baldacci book, despite seeing his name on many a bookshelf and despite owning a few of his books. I picked it up actually at Goodwill, which I greatly enjoy finding “gems” at unlikely spots. I love a good thriller, with some spy shenanigans thrown in, and conspiracies that reach to the depths of the U.S. government. In this case, Danny Buchanan and Faith Lockhart are at the top of the food chain when it comes to lobbying members of Congress. Originally, Buchanan used his mastery of lobbying such members to benefit his fabulously wealthy, giant clients, such as the tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. Then, he took a trip to Africa and had a change of heart. He now wanted to use his lobbying for good to convince and compel members of Congress to end hunger in Africa and fund vaccines for measles. As it turns out, foreign aid isn’t as sexy a sell to our Senators and Congresspersons. And it’s an even harder sell to their constituents, aka the average America, who has an outsized misconception of foreign aid. That is, Americans tend to think 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid when it’s actually far less than 1 percent at about 0.2 percent. Seriously. To remedy this situation, Buchanan and Lockhart started bribing members of Congress with cushiony post-public service money if they helped pass foreign aid-related bills. Unethical and illegal, but in their eyes, the ends justified the means.
Unfortunately for Buchanan and Lockhart, a Cold War warrior at the Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Thornhill, catches wind of Buchanan’s bribery and wants to use it for his own benefit to be the J. Edgar Hoover of the CIA to not only gain power, but to restore the glory of the CIA, especially in comparison to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As one character puts it in the book, it is a short step (and fall) from patriot to zealot, and Thornhill is firmly within the zealot category. When Lockhart goes to the FBI to cut a deal for her and Buchanan, Thornhill sees it as time to “cut bait,” as it were, and kill both of them, and if a FBI agent gets killed in the process, well, sacrifices are necessary for the “greater good” of “protecting the country.” Zealotry justifies any means when those are the perceived ends.
Fortunately, though, for both Lockhart and Buchanan, as well as the FBI in the form of Agent Brooklyn Reynolds, a private investigator hired by Buchanan to make sure Lockhart is safe, Lee Adams, spoils Thornhill’s plans (the FBI agent is still killed, mind you). I then could see two seeds of threads planted once all of this unfurled: 1.) That Lee and Faith would become a couple, forced together out of circumstance, the quintessential strangers who become lovers, and I was right (more on that in a second); and 2.) That there would be a mole within the FBI helping Thornhill, and I was right about who such a person would be, sadly. To the latter, it turned out to be an older, curmudgeonly, and apparently bitter, agent with the FBI known as Connie. He turns on Reynolds, albeit, after saving her against Thornhill’s henchmen.
Back to the former, I don’t mind the romance, because you just expect as much in such stories, but what I did mind was that Lee and Faith escape to Faith’s fancy beach house (a bit odd that they suddenly care about the poor, but are still living in luxury), and while holed up, Lee is exasperated with what he thinks Faith has done to him by ruining his life and reputation by being on the run from the FBI, he gets drunk and sexually assaults Faith. That’s not me saying it; in the morning, Lee acknowledges what he did was sexual assault. What?! Why was this added to the story? I didn’t need my protagonist hero sexually assaulting Faith, and then Faith being the one to blame herself for it. And then they still fall in love and live (somewhat) happily ever after thereafter anyway. That was such a weird storyline decision.
That big issue aside, I thought the book was fun! Again, perfect escapism and cat-and-mouse between two people who think they are doing right by their country (and in the case of Buchanan, the world’s poorest) but are achieving those ends with imperfect means. Thornhill is eventually caught in his scheming and killed (but it’s made to look like a suicide), Reynolds is redeemed at the FBI (Thornhill tries to frame her for it, and that plotline didn’t exactly get patched up that well by Baldacci, in my opinion — why did the assistant agent in charge suddenly believe Reynolds, who he was suspicious of, when she said Connie was the mole?), and Faith even survives taking a bullet for Buchanan to her chest. You gotta love fiction.
(As an aside, I legitimately laughed-out-loud when Baldacci singled out then Congressman from Illinois Rod Blagojevich for his help with the book in the Acknowledgments. Because 12 years after this book was published, Blagojevich was found guilty on corruption charges, which included bribery, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison before having his sentence commuted by then-President Donald Trump.)
If you also enjoy spy thrillers with deep webs of conspiracy, fun action set pieces, and a little romance to boot, I think you’ll enjoy Baldacci’s escapist book, Saving Faith.