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Loose Lips

Loose Lips

4.0 4
by Claire Berlinski

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Few books about life inside the Central Intelligence Agency have been written by women, and none have the wit, suspense, and authenticity of Loose Lips, Claire Berlinski’s dazzling first novel about a love affair between



Few books about life inside the Central Intelligence Agency have been written by women, and none have the wit, suspense, and authenticity of Loose Lips, Claire Berlinski’s dazzling first novel about a love affair between intelligence officers.

New Yorker Selena Keller has just completed a doctorate in Oriental studies. Unemployed and dismayed by her dull job prospects, she sends her résumé to the CIA on a whim. Within weeks, she is contacted by an Agency recruiter, who asks her how she would feel about convincing another human being to commit treason.

Despite her checkered past, Selena passes the background investigation, the polygraph, and a battery of bizarre CIA aptitude tests. Living under cover as a government budget analyst, she begins her education in espionage at the Farm, the CIA’s covert facility.

All CIA officers must survive a demanding training program, and it is there that Selena becomes romantically involved with Stan, a brilliant but darkly paranoid fellow student with presidential ambitions. What happens next is a fascinating inside portrait of the Agency—how spies are recruited, how they are trained, who they meet, where they go, and most important . . . what happens when they fall in love, and begin spying on one another.

A wonderful, pitch-perfect roman à clef that blends satire, romance, and suspense, Loose Lips offers a unique insight into the culture of the CIA.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The novel's main attraction is an Orwellian atmosphere of suspicion that builds so effectively that, by the time Selena learns she has been betrayed by someone close to her, readers will be unsure whom she can trust. What first looks like a light summer read turns out to be a chilling, absorbing story. — Elizabeth Roca
Publishers Weekly
Gidget joins the CIA in political writer Berlinski's rousing, hilarious, compulsively readable debut about a restless New Yorker who enlists in the secret service and learns about truth and justice the hard way. A Sanskritist previously stationed in India, spunky Selena Keller has returned to Manhattan only to face a lackluster teaching tenure. When a cryptic Internet ad seeking an "extraordinary individual" catches her eye, a whirlwind of screening exams and evaluations usher Selena in as the CIA's newest employee. Soon after relocating to Virginia, an orientation consisting of dull paperwork is replaced with hardcore, exhilarating physical instruction at a remote facility called "the Farm," where Selena learns hand-to-hand combat, emergency medicine and hilariously attempts to overcome a fear of flying. She befriends a tough, beautiful trainee named Iris and dates unsuccessfully-until Stan, a "pale, fat man with small eyes and very spiky thick red hair" manages to thrill her with his memory skills and eventually seduce her. Just as all is going well, Selena's trustworthiness and loyalty (and extracurricular activities) are called into question by a tough group of CIA adjudicators, an investigation is launched and it's clear that someone has framed her. Paranoia mounts and everyone close to Selena is considered a potential traitor, including the increasingly slimy Stan. Berlinski's far-fetched comedy of manners clips her protagonist's career wings a bit prematurely, but there's still a lot to cheer about thanks to the narrative voice of an extremely engaging and likable main character. Breezy, accomplished and bracing, this is superior entertainment. Agent, Kathy Robbins. 60,000 first printing; 4-city author tour; film rights sold to Tribeca and Universal. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Single young women trying to find themselves have endured some bizarre situations in recent fiction, but nothing quite compares with Selena Keller's experience when she joins the CIA. Selena, who has spent most of her adult life studying Sanskrit literature, has just received her doctorate when she joins the Agency. She applies to the CIA on a whim, as an alternative to the dull world of academia, but, unfortunately, her training at the Agency is not very exciting. What's worse, it's classified. At first, it doesn't look as if Selena has the makings of a spy: she's unobservant, mentions her training in unsecured e-mail, and isn't much of a sneak. But she's intelligent and determined, and it isn't long before she has mastered the art of manipulation. Alas, so has everyone around her, and in the end it isn't clear who has out-manipulated whom. This first novel is well written and would appeal to anyone interested in the workings of the CIA, but those looking for a good, romantic read will need to go elsewhere. For larger fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/03.]-Karen Core, Enoch Pratt Free Lib., Baltimore Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Selena Keller, a young scholar of Sanskrit literature, just isn't cut out for the life of an obscure academic. Impulsively, she answers an ad to work for the CIA, and the savvy New Yorker soon finds herself caught up in a culture as alien as any she had experienced in India or academia. Taught to recruit foreign nationals to serve as spies for the U.S., she learns covert operations at the agency's headquarters in McLean and paramilitary skills at its fabled "Farm" in rural Virginia. She makes friends and finds a lover, but her ambitious classmates tend to practice their new spycraft techniques on each other, and it is never clear how genuine these relationships are. Selena shows a talent for holding her own, and readers stay on the hook to see what happens next-and to find out what's really going on. Ultimately, a vestigial conscience-and a questioning intelligence that makes it impossible for her to embrace the Company spirit-proves to be Selena's undoing, and she finds liberation in a colorful ending. This fast-moving, economically told story has elements of humor, satire, and mystery. Though some readers will simply enjoy this book as spicy light fare, others will also savor its dark undertones.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
Loose Lips told me everything I ever wanted to know about the CIA but couldn’t think [of] who to ask. Claire Berlinski’s Selena Keller is one part Inspector Clouseau and one part Nancy Drew, with a touch of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw thrown in. Berlinski makes central intelligence funny and endearing and (go figure) intelligent.”
—MEGHAN DAUM, author of My Misspent Youth and The Quality of Life Report

“Funny and smart . . . [It] will hold your attention till the end and make you wish for a sequel.”

“This looks like an insider’s account. Claire Berlinski does a marvelous job of portraying a young woman being plunged into a culture most Americans find difficult to understand. It’s an honest book. It should be read by anyone intending to work for the CIA.”
—ROBERT BAER, author of See No Evil

“Wickedly funny . . . What first looks like a light summer read turns out to be a chilling, absorbing story.”
The Washington Post Book World

Cosmopolitan, “Hot Summer Reads”

There’s . . . a lot to cheer about thanks to the narrative voice of an extremely engaging and likable main character. Breezy, accomplished and bracing, this is superior entertainment.”
Publishers Weekly

“Sharp wit that would make the Sex and the City girls proud; a heroine who refreshingly does not fall for Joe Stud. Grade: A.”
The Washington Post

“Berlinski writes about the CIA with wit and authority. . . . Combing through the various knots of betrayal will hold your attention till the end and make you wish for a sequel.”

“Claire Berlinski has written a book with an authentic feel about a love affair between officers in the Central Intelligence Agency. . . . The main character is attractive, and the writing is tight and witty.”
Deseret News (Utah)

“With Alias and The Recruit stirring up interest, Berlinski’s insightful, clever debut will have wide appeal.”

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


I will never know the truth.   My friends thought I was a budget analyst who worked for the Department of Agriculture. It wasn’t my choice for a cover. In fact, it would have been just about my last choice, but it was what the Agency told me to tell them. I had business cards that said selena keller, planning and accountability division, usda, and if someone called the number on the card, he would reach a bank of sterile phones at the Central Intelligence Agency. In principle, a CIA flack would deftly look up who I was and who I was supposed to be on an electronic Rolodex. In practice, callers were likely to receive a “Selena? Selena who? You said Keller? Does she work here? Are you sure you have the right number? Selena . . . hold on . . . Department of Agriculture, right? Um . . . oh, okay . . . yeah, she’s still in a meeting. Yeah, still there. No, no idea when she’ll be done. Can I take a message?”

I wonder if any of my friends ever thought it odd, my abrupt change of careers. I’d spent most of my adult life in India, studying Sanskrit literature. When I joined the Agency, I’d just received my doctorate from Columbia University, and what I knew about budget analysis, or agriculture for that matter, could have been inscribed inside a matchbook. After I’d been in Washington for six months, the head of my thesis committee called to invite me to the annual Ramayana Conference in DeKalb. I declined, telling him that I was up to my elbows writing a report on the industrial pet feed sector. If he suspected anything, he never let on.

I got the job at the CIA the way you get a job anywhere: I answered an ad on the Internet. That spring I was living in Manhattan, and nine major university presses had recently declined to publish my dissertation, The Dialectic of Manjusri: Monasteries and Social Welfare in Northeastern India, a.d. 600–800. To support myself, I was teaching an undergraduate section in multicultural studies at NYU as I sent out applications for postdoctoral fellowships and tenure-track positions. It was beginning to dawn on me that I might spend the rest of my life teaching at some godforsaken Midwestern university—a place with a name like Mongeheela State—writing articles that would be perused by no more than six geriatric scholars.

I found the ad while surfing the Drudge Report. Bernard Lewinsky was denouncing the treatment of his daughter, issuing an appeal for assistance with her legal bills. An article beneath this linked to the CIA’s website, which in turn connected me to a section called “Employment.” The text read:

For the extraordinary individual who wants more than just a job, we offer a unique career—a way of life that will challenge the deepest resources of your intelligence, self-reliance, and responsibility. It demands an adventurous spirit, a forceful personality, superior intellectual ability, toughness of mind, and a high degree of personal integrity, courage, and love of country. You will need to deal with fast-moving, ambiguous, and unstructured situations that will test your resourcefulness to the utmost.

The accompanying photo displayed a black man, a black woman, and an Asian woman, all in their late twenties. The women conveyed rangy athleticism underneath their sensible professional clothes; the man wore no tie, and his collar was open beneath his blazer. Their expressions were alert and serious. All three were staring intently at a piece of paper I imagined as the order of battle for the Russian Mechanized Infantry Brigade.

I had a stack of copies of my résumé in front of me on my desk. On an impulse, I folded one into thirds and sent it to the CIA’s Department of Human Resources. I never really expected that I would hear from them.

A few months later I was still only barely employed. I had all but forgotten the CIA when a woman who identified herself as “Martha from the federal government” began leaving messages for me on my machine. I had deducted all of my income on my last tax return on the grounds that I had been living in India for most of the fiscal year. I feared that I was about to be audited. Finally, Martha caught me at home. When she announced that she was from the CIA and not the IRS, I was relieved.

“Your résumé is a bit unusual for us,” she said on the phone, “but you have overseas experience and a great education, and that’s something we like to see. And we’re always looking for people with foreign languages. I see you speak Sanskrit and Pali?”

“Well . . .” I coughed. “Well . . . yes.”

She described the position she had in mind for me: “You would work overseas, probably under diplomatic cover. Your job would be to spot, assess, develop, and recruit human sources of intelligence for the United States. It’s a job that requires good judgment and a lot of people skills. Is this something that would interest you?”

“Yes, I think it is . . .” I thought about Mongeheela State University. Go, Heela Monsters! “Yes, it definitely is.”

She scheduled me for an interview in the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. She told me I would be asked some tough questions about current events, and if the interview went well, I would be invited to Washington for further evaluation. Before placing the phone in the cradle, I stared at the receiver for a few moments in astonishment. It seemed to me that her call was nothing less than an act of divine intervention.

I prepared for the interview as if it were a set of grueling graduate boards. I read the major texts on the theory of es- pionage, memorized the names of all the Directors of Central Intelligence since the passage of the 1947 National Security Act, and pored over decades of testimony before the House and Senate intelligence-oversight committees. I studied the language of tradecraft: Only amateurs referred to CIA operatives as secret agents, evidently. They weren’t agents; they were case officers; the foreigners they handled were the agents. An agent was also called an asset, like a country house or a fiduciary instrument. Promising targets for recruitment—assets in cultivation—were called developmentals. I committed the terms to memory and practiced using them, speaking aloud into the air.

I read about the Intelligence Cycle and about the Church and Pike committees. I found a tattered copy of Philip Agee’s Inside the Company at a bookstore in the Village called La Lutte Finale. The passages on Guatemala were underlined in indignant red ink; someone had written state-sponsored terrorism! in the margins. When the day for the interview came, I could have delivered a nuanced discourse on the history of espionage from the Babylonians to the present.

I arrived at the federal building early, smoked a cigarette outdoors, scrubbed my hands in the ladies’ room, shpritzed breath spray in my mouth, and took the elevator to the unmarked conference room to which I’d been directed. I knocked firmly. A man who introduced himself as Carl opened the door and shook my hand. He was about my age, and he wore a dark, baggy suit and sunglasses. I had brought my sunglasses, just in case, and when I saw that he was wearing his although we were indoors, I put mine on too. We sat down at the conference table, straining to see each other.

Carl warned me again that he was about to ask me some tough questions. “Ready?” he asked.

“I’m ready.”

He began by asking me if I knew the name of the prime minister of Canada. By luck, I had read an article about Canada just that morning on the subway.

“Jean Chrétien,” I replied, relieved that I knew.

“Good. Amazing how few people know that.”

“Really? That’s too bad. You know, Canada is the United States’ number one trade partner, too.”

He peered at me curiously, and I worried that I might have sounded overly eager to impress, too academic. I tried to look serious and alert, like the case officers in the photo on the website.

He asked me a few more questions about world leaders and geography. Who were the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council? Which former Soviet republics had nuclear weapons? I knew the answers and felt pleased with myself for knowing. He made notes that he shielded from my view, but when he set the pad down, I could see that he was filling out a form. He had placed all his check marks on one side of a ledger.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to tell you about a hypothetical situation. There are no right or wrong answers—I’m just trying to get a sense of how you think. Okay?”


“Let’s imagine you’re working for us in Nigeria. You’ve just arrived, it’s your first assignment, and you’re undercover as the agriculture guy from the USDA. That’s someone really low on the diplomatic totem pole, by the way. And the first thing the Chief of Station tells you is that he’s really glad you’re there, because they have no one in the station who’s deep enough below the local radar to meet a really sensitive asset—the Nigerian foreign secretary. So you’re going to be the one who meets him. Okay?”

“I get it.”

“So you drive out to pick up this guy, out on the edge of town, right?”


“And everything goes fine—he gives you the intel and you give him the money, and you’re driving him back, right?”


“And then, you’re out on the edge of town, and all of a sudden a dog runs in front of your car. And—splat!—you hit the dog.” He smacked his right fist into his left palm.

“Splat.” I nodded.

“Yeah, you hit the dog—splat! And an angry mob of villagers runs up and starts pounding on the window of your car. Kids, teenagers. And they’re screaming and pounding and the foreign secretary is terrified. He’s all pale.”

“He’s Nigerian?” I was suddenly worried I’d misunderstood something.

“Well, it’s all relative. He’s not looking so good.”


“So what do you do?”

“What do I do?”

“Yes. What do you do?”

I thought for a few seconds. What the hell would I do? Cry? I asked: “Is there any plausible reason for me to be out with this guy?”

“Not at all. The Nigerian foreign secretary, some junior American agriculture officer—there couldn’t be any plausible reason.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Claire Berlinski was born in California in 1968. She grew up in San Francisco, New York, Paris, and the Pacific Northwest; as a teenager she studied philosophy at the University of Washington, then French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1989, she moved to England, where she studied modern history and earned her doctorate in international relations at Balliol College of Oxford University. Her writings about politics, the CIA, and national security have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She has also held a number of other jobs. She lives in Paris and Washington, D.C.

For more information on Claire Berlinski, go to www.berlinski.com

From the Hardcover edition.

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Loose Lips 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After a stint in India as a Sanskrist expert, Selena returns home to Manhattan to become a bored teacher until she reads a weird Internet ad and she surprises herself by responding. In the blink of a cyberspace eye, Selena is interviewed, tested and evaluated to determine whether she an 'extraordinary individual'.................................. The CIA hire Selena, who relocates to Virginia, where she receives top rate instruction at the ¿Farm'; Selena becomes an expert in hand combat, emergency medical care, and other needed skills for someone expected to work in the cold. She is considered a potential superstar except for a fear of flying that even Jung could not cure. Selena becomes friends with fellow student Iris and dates Stan, whose memory skills are incredible. However, stuff happens leading to the CIA Internal Affairs investigating Selena as the evidence points to her being a traitor; Stan roots for her hanging, but Selena refuses to take the fall when she knows someone set her up.................................. LOOSE LIPS is an enjoyable chick lit takes the CIA tale that will leave the audience laughing fro start to finish. The tale is exceptional when Selena goes through her excellent training as a top gun while her relationships are shaky until Stan enters her life. The tale remains fun, but loses some of its oomph when Selena becomes the subject of an investigation of a seditious act although she remains Pollyanna at the Farm.......................... Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book off the library shelf having no idea what to expect. When I began reading it, I couldn't stop. The story was compelling - mostly because the characters and situations were so believable. It almost reads like a nonfiction memoir. It leaves me haunted with questions that I hope to discuss with other readers. 'Kudos' to the author. I hope we see more from her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved how this book started out. There was alot of stuff about the CIA that I found very interesting. It made me want to read more. But, then I got to the last few pages of the book, and I thought 'There's no way the author can sum up the book in these last few pages!' I found that the ending seemed rushed and and left me unsatisfied. Also the Epilogue was too repetitive, I found myself skimming through it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Find out what's it's like inside the CIA and it's training. This is such an enjoyable book and the characters were wonderful. I couldn't put it down and couldn't wait to see what happened at the end. Did she make it or not? You'll be surprised. Enjoyable. I hope Ms. Berlinski writes more.