Arts Beat: Live and Let Fry

YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR the frantic phone calls between movie execs: Wait, there’s a new book about how Julia Child was a spy in World War II? And then she and her husband were hounded during the McCarthy Red Scare in the ’50s? Get Meryl on the line!

Of course, when (if) they actually read the book, they’re bound to be let down. Jennet Conant’s A Covert Affair ($28, Simon & Schuster, out April 5) purports to be about “the adventures of Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS,” but it’s actually more — and less — than that. Years before America’s favorite TV cook and her husband (a Boston Latin alum) settled down in Cambridge, they did meet while serving during WWII in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. And indeed, her devoted fans will thrill to meet a feisty young Julia stationed in Ceylon and China, where she and Paul bonded over sweet-and-sour frog legs…and often got dysentery.

But the Childs weren’t spies — rather, they were low-level functionaries. Julia was basically a glorified secretary. And while Conant expertly describes the breathless excitement of the Good War and how these eager OSS members aided propaganda efforts in exotic locations, the espionage swirls much more around the Childs’ good friend Jane Foster (later Zlatovski). She’s the one who, carrying a canteen of gin to fortify herself, jetted across the war zones of Indonesia and Vietnam, fell in with leftist circles in postwar Paris, and just might have been a Soviet double agent. It’s because of the Childs’ connections to her that they were later investigated, and it’s because of her that they’re often overshadowed in their own book. But hey, Angelina Jolie would totally kill in that role.

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