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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. 052594860001mzzzzzzz.jpgWhy 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


This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Katie
    Feb 13, 2008 @ 15:22:41

    Ohhh, I loved this book, it’s nature is, indeed, very tongue-in-cheek, but as I read it long before I ever heard of Joanna Bourne, I can honestly say that this author made me re-think my opinion of spy plots. Btw., it was Rosario’s review which inspired me to try out this author.

    I am kind of curious about your other reviews on this series, I remember being quite disappointed with The Masque of the Black Tulip, somehow all the good parts were missing (including an engaging plot). #3 in the series is somewhere floating on my TBR but so far I wasn’t tempted to rearrange my reading priorities.

  2. Jayne
    Feb 13, 2008 @ 15:30:59

    I haven’t read “Tulip” or “Ring” yet though I do have a copy of “Tulip” that I plan to get to as soon as possible. Though since I’m already reading arcs due out in March and have several for April already lined up, it might take quite a while to get to it. I did finish “Crimson Rose” and loved it too.

  3. Katie
    Feb 13, 2008 @ 15:39:30

    Busy, busy. Hmmm, maybe I should give the third and fourth book a try then, I would love to love those books, not least because of their gorgeous covers LOL. About all I remember from the second book is suffering my way through a mediocre plot, desperately searching for something that would catch my attention. It was a typical average read, and only my good memories of the first book made me actually finish the story.

  4. Janine
    Feb 13, 2008 @ 16:07:38

    “Possession” a book that bored me to tears.

    I remember that, Jayne! And I magnanimously forgive the insult to one of the best, most romantic books written in the 20th century.

  5. Rachel
    Feb 13, 2008 @ 18:55:03

    I read this book over Christmas, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I REALLY enjoyed the Colin and Eloise parts, and I thought Richard was to die for (and after reading that the author really enjoys the BBC’s Sharpe series, I totally imagined Richard as Sean Bean. Mmmm…). But Amy veered a little to close to TSTL for me. First there was the whole flouncing off the sleep on the deck of this ship thing (which… proper lady? Early 19th century? Sailors all about? I’m so sure.). Then there were her bumbling attempts to help Richard in his spying which resulted in him nearly getting killed. I finished it wishing that Amy’s cousin (Jane, was it?) had been the heroine. Now, this dissatisfaction hasn’t stopped me from reading the rest of the series, so point to Willig! I actually found the second two much more enjoyable and their heroines much more bearable.

  6. Leah
    Feb 13, 2008 @ 20:49:48

    I tried to get into this series last winter, and although I liked the modern characters, I could not believe the historical plot, so it didn’t work for me. The idea is fun, and the covers are truly gorgeous. Oh, and as an old history grad student, she’s got the title format right! It always seems to be Blah blah blah blah: blah blah-blah blah blah. If you don’t use the colon, it’s not real academic history!

  7. Marg
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 02:30:44

    I really enjoy this whole series. I am waiting for the fourth book to come out here soon…I hope!

  8. Jay
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 10:09:47

    See I enjoyed the historical story line way more than the modern one. It’s not that I don’t care about Colin and Eloise, just that insofar as I do care about them, I want to see their story move along more quickly. I’ve enjoyed the whole series so far.

  9. Maya
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 10:10:28

    what a gorgeous cover. for that alone i’ll make a point of seeking this out next time i’m in the book store.

  10. DS
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 11:01:37

    I listened to this boo for about two hours then shut it off. The tongue in chee parts didn’t work for me. It did inspire a hunt for the history of the green carnation flower which apparently was the favorite boutonnière of the the aesthetic set. And by the way, why doesn’t anyone ever write a historical romance set in that milieu? Lots of room for bad behavior, witty bon mots and odd characters. In fact it would be even better if it had some steampunk themes included.

  11. Keishon
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 11:33:15

    I’ve heard good things about this series but haven’t had any luck in getting into the story but I do plan to give it another go.

  12. Susan/DC
    Feb 14, 2008 @ 12:31:16

    Positive reviews like this definitely don’t help me with my New Year’s resolution to reduce the TBR pile — now I want to go out and get this book. I’ve been ogling the series for a while, as I’m both a historical and mystery fan and it would satisfy both cravings. But with six copier paper boxes full of books I haven’t yet read (I’m too afraid to count to know how many books that represents), I’ve felt guilty every time I even think about reading something else. I know I’ll succumb, however, even if Jayne dissed Possession (I’m definitely with Janine on that one).

  13. Lauren Willig – The Secret History of the Pink Carnation « Fyrefly’s Book Blog
    Aug 30, 2009 @ 22:09:09

    […] Reviews: Beyond Books, Bookfoolery and Babble, Confessions of a Bibliophile, Dear Author, Devourer of Books, A Life in Books, My Favourite Books, Once Upon a Bookshelf, Reading and […]

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