Dear Ms. Willig,
At this point in my reading of the “Pink Carnation” books, I don’t bother to put much effort into checking out the blurb because I already know I’m going to read the book. So beyond noticing the exotic sounding flower of this book’s title, I waded into it relatively blind. Recently we’ve been discussing older heroines who “still have it” so I was delighted that Miss Gwen – she of the fearsome parasol – is the heroine this time out.
Forty-five year old Gwendolyn Meadows has been the official chaperon of Miss Jane Wooliston during their two year stay in Paris as well as being a member of the League of the Pink Carnation. It’s been a perfect cover because, after all, why would anyone suspect innocent looking Jane or foreboding looking Miss Gwen of being spies for England? During one of her chick-in-pants nighttime excursions following spy master Tallyrand, Gwen overhears his instructions to one of his agents to find the legendary missing Jewels of Berar in order to lure the Ottoman sultan into an alliance with the French.
Upon returning to their home, she learns from Jane that Jane’s younger sister has gone missing from her boarding school. Hoping it’s just a girlish prank, Gwen reluctantly agrees with Jane that they can’t rule out the possibility that Agnes might have been kidnapped by someone who knows who and what Jane is. Hey ho for England.
There they learn that Agnes is still unaccounted for and together with her friend and roommate Lizzy Reid, has been gone for almost two weeks. They also meet William Reid, late of the East India Army, who is the father of a brood of legitimate and illegitimate offspring. Stunned by the fact that his youngest daughter is missing and his eldest daughter is not living the life he had thought she was, William joins in the hunt for the two girls, the missing jewels and the guarded heart of Miss Gwen Meadows.
Meanwhile, in present day England, Eloise and Colin continue their own search for the legendary jewels which are said to have been at Selwick Hall as well as working out how far their relationship has progressed in the face of Eloise’s upcoming return to the US.
I love that the first glimpse we get of Gwen is of her being dashing, daring and having a blast in her role of a spy. She delights in what she’s up to and she does it well. By day the young French fops are wary of her expertly wielded parasol in defense of her charge but by night she prowls the streets of Paris, climbing up onto balconies and eluding anyone who tries to stop her. The one thing Gwen fears is being buried alive again at her priggish brother’s country house, living the life of maiden aunt sufferance.
William is a former military man who now fondly imagines that his days of fighting are behind him and a future of retirement with his daughters lies ahead. His dismay and horror at learning the truth are both comic and heartbreaking. He realizes that his daughters are stronger, far stronger, than he ever imagined and that one of the reasons they are so resourceful is because of how he’s been content to relegate their care to others and enjoy the bonhomie of his military mess in India.
To his credit, once he discovers what his benign neglect has caused, he’s all over fixing it – and doesn’t excuse himself – but Gwen has some pointed questions with which she skewers him. She also demonstrates her remarkable abilities with a sword parasol. Another thing I like is that Gwen and William each admire the other physically yet any serious love making is delayed until an appropriate time. Gwen doesn’t tackle a half-dressed William while he’s recuperating and William doesn’t jump Gwen while they’re escaping from the orgy. Ahem.
But are these two right for each other beyond the fact that they’re both “of an age?” It’s William who sees beneath Gwen’s assumed hard exterior to the woman who fends off emotion. He’s also stunned – and more than a bit pissed – that none of the young Pink Carnation set seem to realize Miss Gwen is anything other than someone who is amusing and to be tolerated. “His Gwen,” and that thought leaves him all warm and tingly, is so much more than that. For this I’ll almost forgive his lamentable lack of “Father of the Year” actions. In William, Gwen finds a man of honor who isn’t hampered by what society thinks, who finds the woman he wants and who goes for her.
In modern England, Eloise’s final months of working on her dissertation before having to return to the US for a contracted teaching position are winding down but not without some fireworks. Colin’s aunt has determined that the bad blood between Eloise’s English boyfriend and his cousin/step-father needs to be dealt with and has sent them all back to Selwick Hall with a flea in their ears. They are to work together to try and find the Berar jewels or else!
It’s a bit of a relief to not have Colin and Jeremy continually at each other’s throats this go round and hopefully the ultimate outcome of the search signals improved relations among the relations. I’ll be eager to see what will come of Colin and Eloise and whether Eloise will be stuck with whinging undergrads or not.
The 1805 story ends with some upheavals to the League which promise an interesting next book. Will Jane do what I think she might? And with whom will she do it? I’ll be staying tuned. B+