The Secret History of the Pink Carnation
by Lauren Willig
I picked up The Secret History of The Pink Carnation because I’d seen other people reading it, frankly. I also adore the cover art. The girls I’d seen toting it around gushed to me about how much they loved it, and I decided to give it a chance.
The Secret History of The Pink Carnation concerns the efforts of Amy Balcourt, a Napoleonic-era girl returning home to France from England, to join the League of the Purple Gentian, a dashing English spy who has picked up where the Scarlet Pimpernel left off. From its descriptions and its reviews, I expected a dashing romp somewhat like The Scarlet Pimpernel, only with more action, espionage, and some romance with a modern sensibility.
That was not at all what I got.
This isn’t to say that The Secret History of The Pink Carnation isn’t good–it is, if you like fluffy romance novels. This one just happens to have a historical coating, and it’s marketed vastly differently from other romance novels of the same caliber. I was fooled!
The novel has a frame story concerning Eloise Kelly, an American historian attempting to uncover the identity of the Pink Carnation. A plot device is neatly handed to her, and off we delve into the 1800s. Eloise herself is very nice–an unlucky young woman who has always dreamed of her spy heroes. She ends up with a somewhat shoehorned teased romance between her and Colin Selwick, descendant of the Purple Gentian. Her annoying best friend is Pammy, who rips her away from thumbing through Amy’s diary and Richard’s letters for a weird scene at a high profile party (where, of course, she encounters Colin).
The actual story, that of Amy and the Purple Gentian, is better. The beginning is strong–ambitious Amy, her sensible British cousin Jane, and the absolutely formidable Miss Gwendolyn Meadows all seem perfectly capable. I love Miss Gwen–she uses her umbrella as a weapon and tells off Napoleon himself. And escapes any retribution whatsoever. I would love to read about Miss Gwen, but, alas, she is a minor character, probably because she’s too old to pair off with someone.
But as soon as the going gets tougher, Amy proves to be inefficient, and that’s when you realize–this is a romance novel, pure and simple. Amy’s assets and Richard’s assets are described breathlessly, with Richard her dashing rescuer at nearly every interval–saving her from would-be rapists to saving her from herself. Willig explains Amy’s sudden inefficiency in a short author interview in the back of the book; she wanted Richard’s obstacle to be a girl who wanted to be his ally, but wasn’t helpful. In that case, though, I don’t understand why the book isn’t written from Richard’s perspective, instead of making Amy the main character.
There’s also very giggly sex scenes. Richard and Amy almost have full-on sex on the floor of a dirty boat on the Seine… with the boat’s owner about two feet away from them. I can’t even begin to understand that.
The ending has its moments, but the end feels too slapdash and engineered for a sequel–the Pink Carnation of the title doesn’t do anything but promise to stay in France and do their job, setting up the next book in the series, The Masque of the Black Tulip. I will probably not read that one.
Bottom line: Despite the cover and marketing, don’t expect a swashbuckling tale of espionage–it’s a fluffy romance novel. That said, it’s a good fluffy romance novel, if you have a particular love for Napoleonic spies and that time period.
I rented this book from my school library.