Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘The Secret History of the Pink Carnation’ by Lauren Willig

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

Nothing ever goes right for Eloise. The day she wears her new suede Jimmy Choos, it rains. When the Tube stops too quickly, 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 but first she must finish her history dissertation on those most romantic of spies, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. While rummaging through a pile of old letters and diaries, Eloise discovers something amazing, something that historians have missed: the secret history of the Pink Carnation – the most elusive spy of all time. As she reads on, Eloise begins to wonder just who this brave secret agent was, but as she gets tantalizingly close to the answer, she is distracted by the very modern charms of Colin Selwick – is Eloise about to find a dashing hero all of her own?

Review

I read this on our recent holiday in Estonia – it is the perfect holiday read.  By that, I don’t mean that it’s insipid and/or contains a vapid romance that may or may not take place on or near a beach.  I mean that it’s smartly funny, has plenty of adventure of the swash-buckling variety, has a romance that is actually enjoyable to read (*gasp*) and is completely and utterly absorbing.  Honestly, I read this at every available second and forced gently persuaded Boyfriend to sit for an hour with me in a park when I just HAD to read through to the end (the sun was shining and he had a book to read too so I’m not that awful a girlfriend, I promise).

Set largely in France in 1803, this elaborates on Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (which, by the way, I now really want to read!).  The titular character of Baroness Orczy’s work has now retired, with the younger Sir Percy Blakeney stepping into his stealthy shoes as the Purple Gentian, aiding the French resistance against Napoleon one cloak-swirling mission at a time.  Words can not express how much I loved Sir Percy Blakeney.  He is the epitome of ‘dashing’ and everything you could possibly want from a necessarily duplicitous hero.  Since a significant portion of the book is told from his perspective, there’s plenty of time to get to know the spy.  I actually think that the split narrative is what makes this book work so well.  Don’t get me wrong, Amy is great but I liked the behind-the-scenes look at the Purple Gentian’s escapades and his perspective did add a certain level of maturity to the whole thing that was a good balance to Amy’s naivety.

So, Amy.  When she first starting narrating, I wasn’t convinced that I was going to like her.  She drags her life-long friend Jane around like a sidekick and comes across as a bit immature and a lot petulant.  They in fact end up in France because Amy is looking for “adventure” and a way to contribute to the French resistance.  As the novel went along, though, I couldn’t help but like her.  She’s impulsive and brave, regularly makes the wrong choices and then tries desperately hard to make everything better.   

The identity of the Pink Carnation wasn’t a surprise to me at all and I suppose (hope?) that it isn’t supposed to be.  I was happy enough watching the characters mixing up each others’ alter egos that I really didn’t mind that there wasn’t an edge of mystery for me. I was more than content to be in the role of amused spectator. It says a lot about the writing that the mask-based mix-ups never once got on my nerves – usually I would be gripping the pages and getting ever more grumpy about identity confusion (“Just PULL OFF THE MASK!!!” etc…).  In short, the plot just works.

There’s probably a heftier dose of sarcasm than was actually present in Paris in the early 19th century (I imagine…) but that’s an addition that I’m perfectly happy with that exercise of artistic licence as it suits my sense of humour down to the ground.  The scenes with Percy Blakeney’s family and his old friend Miles are particularly well-written and full of quips and witty dialogue that genuinely do make you feel as though you’re stood in the drawing room with them.  I defy anyone not to like them.

This is all getting a little gushy, isn’t it?  Ok, you want some balance?  As with most historical fiction that also features a modern day side-plot, I always felt a tinge of disappointment when I turned the page and found myself dumped back with Eloise.  That wasn’t helped by the fact that Eloise kept going on about how she didn’t want to do anything but read more about the Pink Carnation and I couldn’t help thinking, “Eloise, I know the feeling, stop wittering and get back to the good stuff!” Which isn’t an indictment on Eloise or the plight of her poor Jimmy Choos, it’s just testament to how flipping good the chapters set in the 19th century really are.

Oh, also, I’ve seen a 1-star rating on GoodReads, given because the reader was disgruntled at finding a little raunch in the story.  Did I mention that there’s romance?  I think I did but, just to be clear, there is ROMANCE: it’s believable and relevant and fits into the story seamlessly BUT the characters do more than have a little saucy eye contact or the occasional hand-holding session.  If you like your romance novels chaste, this perhaps isn’t the one for you.

At the moment, there are nine instalments in the series and, from what I can gather, they each focus on a different character.  I’m hoping that means that the series stays as bright as this book.  As with a worrying amount of books, I doubt I would have heard of this book if it hadn’t been for Hanna’s review of the third in the series (The Deception of the Emerald Ring) at Booking In Heels.  Don’t judge this series by its woeful covers, just read it and love it!

Overall:  I honestly can’t think of any more ways to convince you to read this – if you have ever even been remotely interested in historical fiction or romance series with a dashing hero in a black cloak and mask (*swoon*), this is for you.  And if you haven’t ever been interested before and you’re idly thinking about branching out?  I’m pretty sure that you see where I’m going but, yes, this is also for you.

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Date finished:  23 May 2012
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Historical fiction; romance
Published: in February 2005