book: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (2005) by Lauren Willig


Since the last novel I read (Martha Cooley’s The Archivist) was pretty intense, I decided I needed to tackle next a piece of froth, which led me to The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.

Q: Is The Secret History of the Pink Carnation froth?
A: You bet.
Q: Absolute froth?
A: Frothier than that.
Q: Frothier than a badly poured pint?
A: Definitely.
Q: The frothiest book you’ve ever read?
A: Quite possibly. Certainly the frothiest that I can recall reading.
Q: So. Really quite frothy, you’re saying?
A: You’re finally getting the message . . .

The conceit of this novel is that Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, was a genuine historical character. When he hung up his boots, his place was taken by his sidekick, who adopted the nom de guerre of the Purple Gentian. But postgrad Harvard history student Eloise Kelly knows the Purple Gentian was in his turn superseded by yet another Napoleon-thwarting British superspy, the Pink Carnation. So Eloise comes to London, where she’s lucky enough to be given access to a trove of family papers . . .

Eloise’s activities form a frame story to the tongue-in-cheek historical romance that makes up 90% (maybe more) of the novel. It’s the early 19th century and young Amy Balcourt comes to Paris with her cousin and a chaperone to try to contact the Purple Gentian and join his league of fifth columnists. En route she falls in love with Lord Richard Selwick, who is of course, although Amy knows it not, the Purple Gentian. (That’s not a spoiler: the book makes no secret of it.) There are comic adventures, often focused on Amy’s confusion in finding she has the hots for both Lord Richard and the Purple Gentian, both of whom return the compliment.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation reads as if Terry Pratchett had tried his hand at chicklit, but without the necessary self-discipline to pull it off. There are some genuine moments of high humor — I laughed aloud quite a few times — but Willig seems determined to milk every single joke and piece of situational comedy until long after the reader’s smile has faded. It’s reminiscent of the way that children think a joke gets funnier through repetition and elaboration. This tendency on Willig’s part to overwrite everything, which extends even to the obligatory bonkathon between Amy and Richard in the closing pages, means that the book’s at least 25% longer than it should be.

Most of the characters, up to and including Napoleon, act as if they’re having real difficulties with puberty — there’s a whole lotta huffing and flouncing going on. The one major exception is Amy’s cousin Jane, who’s a sort of island of believability in the midst of all the cutesy zaniness. There seems to be the promise at the end of the novel that we’ll spend more time with Jane in later volumes of what has become a fairly extensive series; alas, this is something I’ll never find out, because I can take only so much froth in a single lifetime.


For what it’s worth, this is the 1001st post that I’ve published on this site. Golly: into four figures.

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