The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Set in a world where the Scarlet Pimpernel – master spy and rescuer of aristocrats heading for the guillotine – is real, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is an absolute frolic – and as I type, it’s just £1.75 on Kindle and (in my opinion) well worth the money.

The story follows two adventurous girls: Eloise Kelly, modern grad student, and Amy de Balcourt, living at the dawn of the 19th century. Eloise is writing her thesis on the great spies of the Napoleonic wars – the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation – and one of the sources she uncovers is Amy’s diary. In 1803, Amy was following much the same quest, looking to join the spies and lend her strengths to the fight against Napoleon.

Story over fact
To be clear, while this is a novel set during the Napoleonic wars, it’s not trying to be an authentic Georgian work (or if it is, it has missed) – instead, it’s an adventure story with a strong romantic element, set in a fictional universe. The language is modern, a number of the sentiments are very modern and you could probably swap Amy and Eloise without having to do more than change references to jeans to muslins and tube trains to carriages.

This sort of thing usually drives me crazy, but in this case I could accept it because the story triumphs over the facts. It’s like complaining that action movies aren’t realistic – that’s kind of partly the point of the work. The Pink Carnationis a rollicking adventure, in the tradition of Treasure Island or The Thirty-Nine Steps: implausibility is part and parcel of the genre.

I wasn’t really prepared for the anachronisms going in, and while they didn’t bother me after the first couple chapters, I think I would have been happier forewarned. That said, as we established when I reviewed A Tale of Two Cities, I know very little about the French Revolution and its aftermath – and as it seems to be a theme in my reading this year, maybe I should get a history book or two.

I just really like this book
At this point, if you’ve met me, you can imagine me waving my hands around a lot and possibly almost falling off my seat as I try to explain why, for me, the book was more than the sum of its parts – and the parts are pretty awesome. Avoiding spoilers, I liked:

  • Traditional adventure story with girls in the lead roles
  • Kicking ass in a poofy dress
  • Family ties
  • Family support
  • Developed secondary characters
  • Secondary characters who come into their own
  • Napoleon
  • Spying – with disguises and masks and swords, oh my!
  • Romance

A bit cryptic, I’m afraid. But I was really pleased with the ending, which turned a couple of major tropes on their heads, and am saving the second book in the series for a rainy day.

I think what really grabbed me was the happy enthusiasm – Eloise is happy and enthusiastic about her thesis project, excited to make a historical discovery (such a great, geeky theme for a female lead in what’s marketed as a historical romance); Amy is really excited about becoming a spy and bringing down Napoleon (I’m not saying she’s not a little delusional, but great dreams bring great realities, right?) and the author seems to be really enjoying the story she’s writing.

Despite a number of flaws, I’m inclined to give this book my personal feminist thumbs-up – for no other reason that the women in it dream, plan and act with the same scope that male action heroes do. Take down Napoleon armed only with a hair pin and a black mask? Of course we can!

And that is rather refreshing. So if you’re in the mood for a frolic through Paris in 1803, dive in. If you’re looking for something which will help you write a history paper though – stay away.

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