Lauren Willig

Books: Romance | Historical

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (2005)

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (2005)

The Secret History of the Pink CarnationParts of this story I absolutely loved–Spies! Napoleonic France! Daring women! And did I mention spies!

Other parts of the story I liked less well.

It is a story within a story–an historian gets access to letters and diaries that she hopes will lead her to the identity of the secret revolutionary and spy, The Pink Carnation. She is rebuffed in most of her inquiries, but one older woman allows her to read through the family papers.

I had two problems with this. First, I didn't like the "romance" or whatever the hell it was between the historian and the young man who was heir to some of the papers. Secondly, she is supposed to be reading diaries and letters written by different individuals, but the story is written as if you were there. Since it was repeatedly mentioned that the source material was diaries and letters written by multiple individuals, this type of narrative felt exceptional false.

Really, I could have done completely without any of the modern parts of the story, as they served to take me from the story, and served to remind me that in some cases the behavior of the characters seemed more than a bit out of time. (Those bits were primarily the romance bits.) I think that if I wasn't repeatedly pulled out of the story, I might have been more lenient upon some aspects of the historical portion of the story. But I did keep getting pulled back into the modern world, to spend time with characters I didn't care the slightest bit about, and that annoyance led me to read the historical portion of the book more critically.

So all in all, it was for the most part good, but I'm not sure I'd want to read another story if the modern bits were going to be retained.

Set in England and France in 1803.

I knew I'd read this before, but after checking, it was 2010, so I can be forgiving for remembering next to nothing about the story.

Amy's father was killed during the Revolution, and her English mother died of grief soon after. So from a small age she wanted little more than to avenge the deaths of her parents, and came up with many interesting ways to do so.

It was Jane who figured out how to rub soot and gum on teeth to make them look like those of a desiccated old hag— and then how to rub it all off again before Nanny saw. It was Jane who plotted a route to France on the nursery globe and Jane who discovered a way to creep down the back stairs without making them creak.

When Amy's brother invites her to return to France and join in, she eagerly takes up the offer, hoping to join the revolutionary, The Purple Gentian, and overthrow the government.

But the Purple Gentian doesn't want to deal with young women–he just wants to discover Napoleon's plans for invading England, and put a stop to them.

Except that perhaps he might be a tiny bit interested in one specific young woman.


But he probably shouldn't be.

What I'd forgotten in the intervening years was that this story was lighthearted and somewhat silly.

"Really, indeed," echoed Richard, looking quite impressed. That one comment about the reproductive habits of camels had been quite original.

"This is ridiculous!" Amy exclaimed.

"I quite agree." Thump! "To refer to an innocent camel in that salacious way—"

Not that there is anything wrong with ridiculous–it's fine–I just had it in my head that it was a slightly different kind of story, so the silliness was unexpected and took me aback initially. Mostly because that wasn't quite what I was in the mood for.

The other thing this story does is switch between a "current day" narrative, and the past. The majority of the book is set in the past, telling of the adventures of Richard and Amy and everyone else, but there are parts in the modern day, and those part I like less well–partially because of this:

SPOILER (but this book is 15 years old, so I'm not hiding)

I should have known. I should have expected. But who would ever have imagined that the Pink Carnation could be a woman?

Umm… anyone?

How could I have missed it? As a scholar, how could I have been so careless? That stung, that my preconceptions had so blinded me to the truth of what I was reading. What kind of a historian was I, blundering along blindfolded by my own imagination?

We never get the answer to this. Because this was written in 2005, not 1950, so the modern character not even considering that the spy might have been a woman is… annoying? Frustrating? Something anyway.

I do have the second book (I've picked up several books on sale) so I'll probably read it, but when I'm in the mood for something lighter.

Publisher: Berkley

Rating: 6/10