The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig

>> Wednesday, March 01, 2006

book cover
New author Lauren Willig debuts with a very different novel: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (extras).

And didn't she luck out with that cover? No heaving bosoms to be seen, and VERY attractive! :-)

Nothing ever goes right for Eloise. The day she wears her new suede boots, it rains. When the subway stops short, she's the one thrown into some stranger's lap. And she's had her share of misfortune in the way of love. So, after deciding that romantic heroes must be a thing of the past, Eloise is ready for a fresh start.

Setting off for England, Eloise is determined to finish her dissertation on two spies, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. But what she discovers is something historians have missed: the secret history of the Pink Carnation-the most elusive spy of all time. As she works to unmask this obscure spy, Eloise has more and more questions. Like, how did the Pink Carnation save England from Napoleon? What became of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian? And will Eloise Kelly escape her bad luck and find a living, breathing hero of her own?
Did I really think I was all tapped out on spy stories? Let me correct that: I'm sick of obligatory, humdrum, spy subplots. When the author shows as much enthusiasm for her subject matter as Willig does here, well, then, I like spy stories very much! A B+.

Ok, first of all, you should mostly disregard that blurb I quoted above. It sounds like it's all about Eloise, but actually, most of the story centers on the Purple Gentian and Pink Carnation, spying and heroic derring-do in Napoleonic France. Eloise is basically a frame for this story.

A PhD candidate working on her dissertation on 19th century gentleman spies, American Eloise Kelly is spending some time in England, doing research. She knows all about the Purple Gentian, who was unmasked as Lord Richard Selwick early on, but what she really wants to do is to find out who the Pink Carnation was, as it would be a very nice scoop for her dissertation!

Reasoning that, in the same way that Lord Richard was in contact with Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, he must have also been in contact with whoever was the Pink Carnation, Eloise resolves to find his correspondence and look for clues there, so she contacts his descendents to inquire about old family papers. Most of her responses are lukewarm, but she receives both a big set-down (from Colin Selwick) and an invitation (from Arabella Selwick-Alderly). Arriving at Mrs.Selwick-Alderly's house, she's immediately shown a pile of old papers, which, the lady tells her, will answer all her questions.

So in between some very cute encounters with Colin (who happens to be Mrs. Selwick-Alderly's nephew and is not too happy to have Eloise butting into his family's history), Eloise reads those papers, and the story of the Pink Carnation slowly takes place.

And what a story it is! Amy Balcourt (née Mademoiselle Aimée de Balcourt in France) lost her father to the guillotine during the Terror after the French Revolution. She and her mother were visiting her mother's family in England when the Revolution took place, and Amy has spent most of her life there, living with her uncle. Deeply affected by her father's death, Amy fantasizes about joining, first the Scarlet Pimpernel, and after his cover is blown, about joining the spy who takes his place: the Purple Gentian.

After the peace of Amiens, Amy receives an invitation from her brother, who remained in France and is now a hanger-on in Napoleon's court. Seeing an opportunity to finally meet her beloved Purple Gentian, Amy convinces her uncle to let her go, and so she leaves, full of plans and accompanied by her cousin Jane and their chaperone, Miss Gwen.

Amy gets her wish even before leaving England, though she doesn't know it. Her party shares the boat in which they cross the Channel with Lord Richard Selwick. Both of them are very attracted to each other, but once Amy finds out this charming Englishman is in Napoleon's confidence and even accompanied his troops to Egypt, as part of the archeological party of the expedition (an excellent cover for his spying), she dismisses him as a traitor. Or, at least, she wants to, because she still feels much too attracted to him. And when she finally meets the Purple Gentian (masked, of course), well, she's attracted to him, too!

Amy and Richard's story is quite a farce. This is not a dark, realistic spy story, but a fun, lively one, which was a joy to read. And even though many of the historical characters were exagerated and made pretty ridiculous, there still was a feel there that it was all based on some very solid and deep research, and I loved that.

And really, for all that they did feel 21st century-ish, I loved the characters. Both Amy and Richard have charm to spare, and even though I think I'd have ordinarily though Amy a bit too cute and perky and adorable for my taste, her joie-de-vivre was too contagious for me to resist, and I found myself very involved in their romance, which was surprisingly sensual for such a light, comedic read.

I can't decide if it was the characters or the writing that I loved best about the book. I usually tend to prefer it when third person POV is done using, well, I don't know the technical term, but I guess you could call it a "deep" POV. When we're in a character's POV, I like for the action to be narrated as seen from that character's eyes: only what he or she knows and feels, narrated in the words he or she would use. And I don't really mind some head-hopping, but I do prefer it when we stay in one character's head for a while... maybe a scene?

So I really would have thought Willig's writing wouldn't have worked well for me, since POV hopped constantly from Richard to Amy, and even sometimes to other characters... a paragraph here, a couple of paragraphs there, then back for a few more paragraphs... all the time! And even when we were in one particular head, there were constant little omniscient asides. I actually recently abandoned a certain book after a few pages, because this same thing kept kicking me out of the action.

But you know what? Here, it worked. No, not just worked: it was wonderful! I adored Willig's voice so much that I'll probably be buying her books, whatever they're about. Her voice actually reminds me a bit of Julia Quinn's. Not that she feels like a Quinn wannabe (like too many light historical authors), not at all! It's just that both voices are wonderfully witty and, well, they sparkle, I guess! Oh, and another similarity is that, like JQ often does, Willig writes a story which could actually make for some dark angst, but she does it with such a light, witty touch, poking gentle fun at her characters' foibles, that even though the story doesn't lose it's emotional core, it becomes tremendously funny and feel-good.

I really think the humour was what I liked best here. It was not haha, slapstick humour, it was more like constant smiling at the way she put things... elegant, witty turns of phrase that charmed me. And I loved that Willig wasn't afraid to make fun of certain embarrassing things her characters felt and thought.

The ending, while pretty much closing the story of Amy and Richard, leaves Eloise and Colin's story open, making it clear that there are some sparks between them, and that these sparks will have an occasion to develop, because there are many more family papers to go through. The sequel to Pink Carnation, The Masque of the Black Tulip, is already out, and it's about Richard's sister Henrietta and his friend Miles. There's another book due after that, at least according to the Willig interview included after the book, but I don't know who it's about yet. We're only told it's not about Jane, who I really want to know more about, but I guess I can wait!


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