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Lauren Willig – The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

August 31, 2009

101. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig (2005)
Pink Carnation, Book 1

Length: 390 pages

Genre: 95% historical romance, 5% modern chick-lit.

Started: 19 August 2009
Finished: 22 August 2009

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? Medieval Bookworm recommended it to me in the 4 Rs Challenge. (Yet another intertwining modern/historical storyline novel.)

If most spies were so
easy to catch, the French would
probably have won.

Summary: Grad student Eloise Kelly knows what she wants to write her thesis about: the true identity of the Pink Carnation, who, like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Purple Gentian, was a British spy in France during the Napoleonic wars, but who, unlike the other two men, has never had his identity revealed. Eloise stumbles upon a treasure trove of papers which she is told may hold the name of the Pink Carnation, but what she finds instead is a love story between Amy Balcourt, a feisty young woman who is determined to help the British cause against Napoleon, and Richard Selwick, the man who was known as the Purple Gentian.

Review: This book was thoroughly, exceedingly silly, but still entirely entertaining. Let’s be honest: it’s got a lot of flaws, both in concept and execution, but at the same time, it kept my attention, kept me reading, and was a nice, light, thoroughly fluffy, funny good time.

The main problem I had with the book was how thoroughly anachronistic it was, both in terms of dialogue and behavior. I’m not an expert on the Regency period by any means, but I know damn well that the vast majority of the situations in which Richard and Amy contrive to find themselves would never, ever have happened. A young lady of high society arranging a midnight meeting with a man she’s never met in a public park? Right. That selfsame lady getting to third base on the floor of a rowboat crossing the Seine? Not a chance, no matter how impulsive she is. Amy frequently behaves like an rather slow child, or at best an impetuous 14-year-old, rather than the 20-year-old she is (and this in an age where many 20 year old women were already married with a kid or two), and I had to frequently remind myself that Robert wasn’t being inappropriately gross and creepy by lusting after her. (At least not based on their age difference. Based on how incapable Robert seemed to be of holding a single other thought in his head when he was around her, his attraction to her was certainly ill-advised and incompatible with his espionage activities.)

I wasn’t crazy about the framing plot, either. Chick lit is just not my genre of choice, and the framing story is thoroughly steeped in it (New rule: If you refer to an article of apparel, particularly shoes or handbags, by designer (“my Jimmy Choo boots”), then what you are writing is chick lit.) The male “romantic” “lead” in the framing story is your standard devastatingly handsome but curmudgeonly but with a soft gooey heart of gold Brit… Willig even names him “Colin”, fer god’s sake. And, while I’m okay with the framing device of a grad student pouring through old documents to introduce a historical plot, the abrupt switch from “Oh my goodness, look at these amazing papers and documents and letters and diaries and DOCUMENTS.” to an omniscient third-person narrator in the historical sections left me wondering about the context, and about how much of what we were reading was actually available to Eloise.

But despite not being clear about the context of the story, and despite wanting to give Amy a good slap and tell her to stop being a moron, AND despite figuring out the identity of the Pink Carnation very, very early on, I still kept reading, and I still enjoyed the book. As long as I was able to turn off the part of my brain that makes rational objections to all of the things mentioned above, this book was funny, and entertainingly racy, and a fun adventure romp. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like historical romances, or just need something light and appropriately guilty-pleasure-ish for an airplane or vacation read, or just to give your brain a break, this one was certainly fun to read, despite (or because of?) it being thoroughly silly fluff.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Beyond Books, Bookfoolery and Babble, Confessions of a Bibliophile, Dear Author, Devourer of Books, A Life in Books, My Favourite Books, Once Upon a Bookshelf, Reading and Ruminations, ReadingAdventures, Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog, Stacked, Stephanie’s Written Word, Thoughts from an Evil Overlord
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The Tube had broken down. Again.

Cover Thoughts: It looks like what it is, namely, a historical romance, and it does feature a pink carnation. However, neither the title nor the cover gives any hint that it’s a book about spies, which loses it some points.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 96: “He reached for the shawl, and Jane handed it to him graefully before sliding back against the velvet squabs.” – a thickly stuffed, soft cushion.
  • p. 200: “Mme Rochefort’s parties teemed with young adventurers, agin flirts, and hardened roués, all barely clinging to the fringes of society.” – a dissolute and licentious man; rake.
  • p. 327: “A shako hat rolled through the dust as Amy rammed into one of her captors, sending him reeling.” – a military cap in the form of a cylinder or truncated cone, with a visor and a plume or pompon.
10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2009 8:46 am

    I often don’t care about improbable situations, but for some reason, modern-sounding dialogue in historical fiction novels drives me up the wall.

    Love the rule about chick lit!

  2. August 31, 2009 9:26 am

    I think the next couple of books are somewhat better, although I’m a bit distressed by the fact there are now 5 of them. I think it is time to wrap it up already, 3 would have been enough (haven’t read the 5th one yet).

  3. August 31, 2009 12:21 pm

    I do enjoy chick lit from time to time but I’m not crazy about romance, so I don’t think this book is for me.

  4. August 31, 2009 4:31 pm

    I do think it’s a great relaxation read – I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it more though! As Jen said, the next couple get better, and the frame story gets more interesting as well (it moves so slowly in this installment if I recall correctly). To be honest, I do my best ignoring historical inaccuracies and anachronisms in most romance type books because otherwise I’d never enjoy them. I also don’t tend to know much about the periods in question – medieval romances can drive me mad and that’s why I don’t read them. =)

  5. September 1, 2009 8:53 am

    Jenny – Anachronistic dialogue is one of those things I usually don’t notice until after the fact… it’s fine while I’m reading, but once I’m done with the book I’ll stop and think “Wait a minute…”

    Jen – Good to hear the sequels improve; I’ll have to put a hold on the next one at the library for the next time I need some brain candy.

    bermudaonion – Yup, probably not. :)

    Meghan – I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy it… it did keep me reading for a full day and made me put off a bunch of errands and other responsibilities so that I could finish it.

    As for the historical inaccuracies, I mostly solve that problem by knowing very little about history *other* than what I read in fiction. :-D

  6. Cat permalink
    September 3, 2009 6:42 pm

    Thanks for the link!

    I didn’t find this book, or the rest all that romance-y, more like fiction in my mind. And I am not at all a historical fiction buff so perhaps that is why the anachronistic bits didn’t bother me as much.

    I do enjoy this series though. I have to say this one if my favourite of the bunch.

  7. September 8, 2009 3:55 pm

    “….despite wanting to give Amy a good slap and tell her to stop being a moron.” AND other caveats! it must’ve been an entertaining read for you to finish it.

    I always like the historical inaccuracies. Well, no, that’s not true. I like CATCHING the historical inaccuracies. ;)

  8. September 14, 2009 12:18 pm

    I recently read this one, and was a bit disappointed. I wasn’t expecting so much romance and wouldn’t have picked it up if I’d known. It’s not a series I’ll continue with, but I can see where it could be really appealing to others.


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