The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is the second book I finished from my February reading plans, even if I didn’t actually read it until March. And Lauren Willig’s series was on my radar long before then–I own the first five in the series from various book sales. It was the perfect book to take on my weekend trip to Boston.

The premise of the series is that the famed Scarlet Pimpernel not only was real, but had several followers who assisted and later succeeded him in subverting the French revolutionary government. A few have been unmasked like Sir Percy Blakeney, but others remain anonymous. American doctoral student Eloise Kelly has been obsessed with these dashing heroes for as long as she can remember, and upon following a chance lead to England she finds her holy grail in Mrs. Selwick-Alderly: descendant of the Purple Gentian and possessor of a trunk full of diaries. The kindly old lady tells her to begin with the papers of Amy Balcourt. Eloise is ready to sell her soul to get her hands on them. However, she’ll have to convince the nephew Colin Selwick that she’s not a threat to his family history, and that could take some work.

Most of the novel is actually Amy’s story. She is a young French ex-pat living with her cousins in England and bursting at the seams to join up with the followers of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He is ousted before she has a chance, but soon another opportunity presents itself. She is finally summoned by her brother Edouard who stayed on the continent, so she, her cousin Jane, and their sharp-tongued chaperone Miss Gwen head for the House of Balcourt. During the turbulent crossing Amy crosses swords with Sir Richard Selwick, who is secretly the Purple Gentian, and vows to avoid him in the future. It might not be so easy, because upon their arrival at the house Amy and Jane soon stumble upon a plot and have no choice but to seek out the masked hero. There’s a lot more plot after this but I don’t want to give anything away.

What I should have noticed was that the descriptions usually have the word “romance” before “historical,” and the author blurbs in turn call it seductive and sexy. This is definitely a bodice ripper, and at times Amy and Richard seem more focused on each other than on the momentous tasks at hand. It’s not the first book I’ve read with steamy scenes, and probably won’t be the last. But I wasn’t expecting it, and I had to try to keep from blushing in the middle of a crowded bus.

About 90% of the book is devoted to Amy’s tale, so the parts where Eloise was interrupted by real life were a bit jarring.  Sometimes I thought her purpose was simply to serve as context, lending academic weight to the idea that these people all really existed and emphasizing the suspense of determining their identities. Other times she was simply making a fool of herself. This is why I don’t usually read chick lit. Whereas Bridget Jones had a lot going for her despite her insecurities, Eloise is merely a sweet, studious girl overindulging in woe-is-me’s. Her main flaws are dressing in tweeds, staying up all night reading, ruining her suede shoes, and having a bad ex-boyfriend. By the end of the book I still felt like I hardly knew her, so I’m glad her story continues in the next volume.

There were parts of the book that had me rolling my eyes in disbelief, like when Miss Gwen gives Bonaparte a scolding. She may be a rather unusual governess, but she isn’t (or shouldn’t be) stupid. Amy also got on my nerves somewhat at times with her childike behavior; she is often silly and impetuous, confident about what she wants and plunging ahead blindly in pursuit. Her cousin was much more to my liking because her temperament is similar to mine, or at least I’d like to think so. Jane is calm and collected, astutely appraising all sides of every situation but ready for adventure when it arises. She is a complete foil to Amy. The rest of the cast is entertaining even if somewhat over the top, like Richard’s family. But part of what makes the book work is that Lauren Willig doesn’t take herself seriously. It’s meant to be fun and slightly ridiculous, and succeeds. In an interview at the back of the book she says that the rest of the books will focus on various other characters mentioned in this one as they each take on different roles in their pursuit of justice. I’m looking forward to reading the other stories, especially Jane’s.

Is Lauren Willig the next Baroness Orczy, or Georgette Heyer? Not really, though she may rank above some of the Baroness’s later sequels. Did she keep me glued to the book for a five-hour bus ride? Absolutely. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is very good for what it is, as long as you know in advance exactly what it is.

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Published in: on March 22, 2011 at 7:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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The French Lieutenant’s Woman

I’m doing pretty well with my reading plans! Still working on Ivanhoe, but I finished The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles.

I’m…ambivalent about it. I had thought that it actually was a Victorian novel, before realizing it was written a century too late for that. This is clearly a modern analysis of Victorian society, and the struggle to break free from its habits and mores.

the frech lieutenant's womanCharles Smithson is a gentleman and amateur scientist enjoying a holiday at Lyme and spending time with his fiancee Ernestina.  While there, he encounters the former governess Sarah Woodruff, a strange, aloof woman who makes tongues wag by walking out alone every day. The story goes that she was jilted by her French lover. Charles can’t help but be attracted to the unconventional creature, though an attachment between them would never do.

The narrator brings a modern perspective to the story, and is almost aware that it is fiction. He (I’m assuming) is omniscient in his treatment of the characters, but will go off on asides about Charles Darwin or Thomas Hardy. I waffled between finding him interesting and intrusive. This treatment gave a level of separation to the narrative. I found myself having some sympathy for Charles and for Tina, but Sarah remained impenetrable, as I suspect she was intended to be. I cannot say that I liked her, or comprehended her. Now that time has passed I have a little more understanding for what might have motivated some of her actions, but I was very annoyed with her when reading.

Because I never fully embraced her character, I didn’t always find the romance believable, either. I almost felt that they were both just searching for something new and exciting and mysterious, a little out of reach, rather than love. ( There’s also a tutor at my job named Sarah Woodruff, so that always threw me a bit, too.)

So, still ambivalent, but I’m glad I read it, and any book that makes me think about it and look for literary criticism is good in the long run. (Except The Sound and the Fury which will forever make my list of most frustrating books.)

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is on both The Guardian and 1001 Books lists.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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