REVIEW: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
Dear Ms Willig,
Of course I’ve heard of your series of novels set during the Napoleanic Wars featuring dashing spies named after flowers. Why hadn’t I read one until now….honestly I don’t know. Perhaps I thought the modern bits featuring a English history major trying to track down the identities of the spies was just too cute. Maybe I couldn’t handle anyone mimicking “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” It’s been done already so why mess with an icon. And also there was the vague similarity to “Possession” a book that bored me to tears. Then Jane forwarded a batch of arcs to me and I was seduced by the cover of book four in the series which is not the book I’m writing to you about. However, knowing I wanted to read this upcoming book, I decided that, since I’m anal about reading a series in order if possible, I’d better get my hands on “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.” I got my hands on a copy and got cracking.
I decided early into reading the book that it was a definite homage to the dashing spy genre saucily mixed with wry humor and delightful turns of phrase. Eloise lays out her plans to root out the long cloaked identity of the Pink Carnation:
That was what I planned to do-‘to hunt the elusive Pink Carnation through the archives of England, to track down any sliver of long-dead gossip that might lead me to what the finest minds in the French government had failed to discover.
Of course, that wasn’t how I phrased it when I suggested the idea to my dissertation advisor.
I made scholarly noises about filling a gap in the historiography, and the deep sociological significance of spying as a means of asserting manhood, and other silly ideas couched in intellectual unintelligibility. I called it "Aristocratic Espionage during the Wars with France: 1789-1815."
Rather a dry title, but somehow I doubt "Why I Love Men in Black Masks" would have made it past my dissertation committee.
Personally I’d love to see a dissertation with that title but like Eloise, I doubt it’s intellectually convoluted enough. Do grad schools offer classes on how to come up with a sufficiently mind twisting title? I’ve always wondered.
Since the book is very tongue-in-cheek, I didn’t get hot and bothered about how modern the characters acted. Use of first names among almost strangers, bizarre scenes involving Richard’s family meeting Amy’s family, both families watching as Richard asks Amy to marry him — I let them just roll off my back and laughed at the funny lines. I also like that both Amy and Richard have their faults and flaws – Amy is far to ready to dash off on improbably planned spy raids and her espionage techniques could use serious polishing while Richard has his moments of smug superiority and stubborness.
I enjoyed the secondary characters and how their actions were centered on the story at hand rather than plumping themselves for their own starring turns. Richard’s comical horror at the thought of his parents’ intimacies was delightful. The plot is actually grounded in simplicity with the League of the Purple Gentian carrying off fairly well thought out exploits instead of some of the more outlandish of Amy’s fanciful plans. One thing I did wonder at was whether or not Richard would really have been able to finagle a way into Egypt in the manner he told Amy. I also think if I were Amy, I’d have been mad at him for a little longer over his reasons for not revealing his true identity to her. Like Amy I would have forgiven him but he’d have needed to grovel just a bit.
All in all, I had a ball reading “Pink Carnation” and can’t wait for the further acts of dazzling daring do from the Leaques with the Silly Flower Names as well as catching up on the possible romance between Eloise and a modern day descendant of Lord Richard and Amy. B