I want to preface my review of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig by saying that I started this book with absolutely no idea what it was about. I saw it online somewhere, took a fancy to the title, and ordered it for Paperbackswap without a thought. So basically, I went on a blind date with this book--and came out a very happy reader.
I'm rather fond of the book within a book method of story telling. And it does come up in my reading more often than you'd expect. From William Goldman's retelling of The Princess Bride, to The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, to The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfeild (all also wonderful books) it seems that in certain cases this is the most suitable way to make a story seem immediate and relevant. In this case, Eloise is a graduate student who is interested in discovering the identity of the Pink Carnation, an English spy who helped to thwart Napoleon. She starts by researching the Carnation's predecessor, the Purple Gentian. She hits mostly dead ends until one of the Purple Gentian's descendents responds to her letter and invites her to read some of the family's papers. This opens up to the historical portion of the story, which follows Richard Selwick (The Purple Gentian) and his companions in Paris as they try to prevent the French invasion of England. The love interest in the book is Amy, and she has a girlish fascination with the Purple Gentian, having read much about him.
Anyone who has ever seen a super hero movie can guess where the romantic plot thread goes. Amy is fixated on the Purple Gentian, and pays no attention the Richard. She doesn't see that they are one in the same despite the wealth of evidence before her. Amy isn't just infatuated with the Purple Gentian, however: she wants to help him. She's always dreamed of being a spy, and she has a wealth of ideas to help her achieve that goal.
I have ample praise for this book. The characters, both past and present, are distinct and vivid. I was able to relate to Eloise and her slightly nerdy obsession with historical spies. I think she really helped to draw me in to the story of Richard and Amy. Richard is painted as dashing and heroic. That might sound bland, but in this story it works well, and Willig gives him enough flaws to keep him from seeming to perfect. Amy is youthful and spirited. To be honest, she is the character I liked the least, but I'll address that shortly. There are plenty of women of intelligence and strong character--Amy's cousin Jane, Miss Gwen the chaperone, and Richard's mother and sister. The historical plot was extremely engaging. The style of the writing is witty, light, and fun.
As implied above, Amy was one of my complaints. I didn't hate her, most of the time I liked her. But she has several too-stupid-to-live moments, and they really damaged my opinion of her. A lot of this can be contributed to youth and inexperience, but some of it is just plain idiocy. She severely overestimates her own competence, and it puts everyone involved in danger. In other words, she's a walking, talking plot contrivance.
My second minor complaint is the pace. It slows to a crawl in places when it ought to be zipping forward. Obviously the author slows down for the romantic bits, and that's fine. But there are other times when a slow pace is used where one doesn't belong--like when a character is in need of rescue and everyone stops to talk about it over tea. I think this was supposed to be humorous, but it just made me impatient.
All told, this is a unique and very enjoyable historical novel. It's much lighter and more fun than it appears. 4 stars.