The year is 1803, and the repercussions from the French Revolution are still fresh in the minds of both England and France–specifically, the daring exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Amy, an impressionable young English woman, is determined to go to France and offer her services to the Purple Gentian, who is the successor, in the ‘dashing spy’ category, to the Scarlet Pimpernel. She and her friend, Jane, and their duenna, set off for Paris, meeting a good many of the people in power and Amy sets about searching for the secret identity of the Purple Gentian. (Readers will figure out the Purple Gentian’s identity long before Amy, though as we might guess from the title, discovering the Gentian’s identity isn’t the real purpose of this book.)
In the framing 20th century story, Eloise Kelly is researching the Purple Gentian for her dissertation at Harvard when she finds mention of another spy, the Pink Carnation, who had a mysterious connection to the subject of her thesis. She tracks down one person in England who is willing to let her see the family papers concerning the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation, and impetuously rushes overseas, only to find that the nephew of the papers’ owner is not so forthcoming in granting his permission as his aunt was. In fact, he’s a dashing cad.
This is a lightweight bit of candy floss; it’s not meticulously researched literary historical fiction, but rather a sophisticated cousin to those bodice ripper romances with the lurid covers–all the excitement with none of the heaving bosoms. This is the sort of historical romance chicklit that you can read on the train commuting to work without feeling the need to conceal the cover with a brown paper wrapper. This is a slapstick version of I R SRZ spy thriller novels: there is mud in inconvenient places, windowsills that are just a little too high to enter gracefully, cloaks that wind around limbs at the worst possible moment, and so on. The errors that the Purple Gentian commits would have unmasked him figuratively long before the nineteenth century component of the story began, and quite possibly lost him his life. Amy is so much the naive ingenue that I find it hard to believe she managed to get off the mansion grounds before being caught by one of the servants. There is a distinct “Mary Sue” element about Eloise’s life–Willig also attended Harvard for her graduate degree and spent a year in London researching her dissertation. Read it, enjoy it, but don’t think too hard about it and definitely don’t analyze it, or the plot and structure will crumble.
What to read next? Well, other than the remaining books in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation reminded me of The Nanny Diaries or Lauren Weisberger’s books (The Devil Wears Prada, among others, for those who don’t pay attention to movie remakes) A more exact match might be Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea; it doesn’t purport to historical fact, but there is a framing and internal story which parallel one another and a very strong romantic element.