Yes, I am back to writing reviews of the books I’ve read — mostly because I’m back to reading books for things other than school, and while I’m sure I could have provided informative and entertaining reviews on topics bridging the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by the time you finish a brick like Bleak House the very last thing you want to do is spend more time thinking about it. I promise.
My initial thoughts upon encountering this book was that it seemed like it would be a less classy and less literary version of Possession (the best book I’ve read all year, I kid you not — expect a review of it sometime later), presenting parallel stories of a modern academic and the historical figure(s) she’s researching. Except that The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is intentionally something like “chick lit” (perhaps one of my least favorite genre designations ever), and as such contains perhaps more unlaced bodices and knee breaches than are entirely historically accurate. But you know what? I’m not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed this.
The story-within-a-story, in which Amy Balcourt and Richard Selwick meet, dislike each other, then like each other, then really like each other, then get married because we all knew they were going to, was neither terribly inventive nor terribly gripping, but it was witty and well-researched. I loved Richard’s quip about a woman asking him if the Rosetta Stone was some new kind of jewel, and although I would have liked to see a more competent Amy, her well-intentioned but poorly-executed spying escapades did seem quite realistic (if also therefore realistically bad). I’m not one to enjoy novels where the reader consistently knows more than the heroine, or realizes key developments significantly before the heroine, so it bothered me that I knew who Richard was so long before Amy did. On this note, it also bothered me that I knew the Pink Carnation was a woman before Eloise figured it out, but that’s not something I can blame entirely upon Eloise.
I really did like Eloise’s side of the story, and I would’ve liked to see more time devoted to it — I’m hoping it gets more page space in the next books of the series, though I’m glad that the elongation of her story throughout an entire series’ worth of other peoples’ stories means that it will get a more lengthy development. From the first page of her narrative I felt like she knew me, even if only just a little — that small detail of trying to say “sorry” in a British accent when bumping into someone on the tube pretty much tells the story of my time in London. There are just some things you do to try to blend in, and that’s only the most obvious. Also it was kinda cool to see Eloise’s movements around London and realize proudly that I knew exactly where she was walking and how she would have gotten there. It’s nice to feel like I know this city (though apparently I can’t find Harrods…my present idea of London apparently does not go much further west than the edge of Hyde Park).
The one thing that bothered me about this book was that there were no real repercussions for the fact that Amy’s stupidity (and she is stupid) revealed the identity of the Purple Gentian. Richard seems perfectly happy to give up his career as a spy and retire to a life of domestic leisure in Britain, and Amy seems more than content to do the same. This would not be okay with me, so it bothers me a bit that it’s okay with them.
Finally, looking back, nothing about the book strikes me as particularly clever. I mean, nothing that the supposedly oh-so-sneaky spies did seems like it would make them terribly hard to track down. I really hope Willig is just saving up for the escapades Jane will have as the real Pink Carnation, because if this is the best she can serve up in the way of espionage antics, I’m a little underwhelmed.
And yet — my immediate reaction upon finishing it was, “Okay, where’s the next one?” Which means that, whatever Willig has done “wrong” with this book, she has done the one fundamental thing right.