Like most people, I'm not always looking for the latest literary masterpiece to peruse with furrowed brow and analyze extensively afterward regarding its thesis on the socio-political ramifications of society's post-colonial paradigm of blah blah blah. Admittedly, I love depth and substance with my choice of reading material, but sometimes--particularly during a crazy week, like the past one--I just want the novelistic equivalent to a warm bath: something I can sink into and simply enjoy with minimum effort.
So it's not as if I was ever expecting Lauren Willig's debut novel
to offer profound literary insights. If at any point I had, the book's
jacket would have rapidly dispelled such misguided notions, featuring
as it does a girl in a billowy pink dress (adorned with pink roses),
with blurbs in a bubble-gum pink font on the back cover. Pink is, in
fact, a pervasive theme of the book's jacket, which probably should
have tipped me off as to the book's actual contents. Key words like
"romance" and "chick-lit" were also--in retrospect--legitimate red
flags. In my defense, however, it is a novel about the "Pink Carnation," Willig's 21st century answer to Baroness Orczy's immortal Scarlet Pimpernel, so I rationalized that pink was a logical choice for the cover artist rather than a sign of insipid girliness.
Here is what I was expecting from a book that claimed to continue the mythology of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a spy thriller set in Europe during the French Revolution: intrigue, suspense, and clever espionage. Artful foiling of an equally clever villain was not strictly necessary but still desirable. Additionally, the author's prominent status as a Harvard historian seemed an assurance that the historical setting would be believable, perhaps even--fingers crossed--vivid and atmospheric. But believable, certainly, because...well, it's Harvard, for heaven's sake.
In the universe of Pink Carnation, the Scarlet Pimpernel is an actual historical figure who was followed upon retirement by the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation--the identity of the latter having remained a mystery up to the present day. Enter Eloise Kelly, a Harvard graduate student in history (ahem) who has traveled to London to discover the identity of the Pink Carnation as fodder for her thesis. She soon discovers journals from the nineteenth century, and from that point on, the story veers between the present day in the life of Eloise Kelly and the Purple Gentian in nineteenth century France.
Honestly, a combination of (early) nineteenth century Europe, espionage and academia seemed like the ultimate recipe for entertainment as far as I was concerned. I read the first chapters--written in a breezy, humorous style--with a cozy sense of impending gratification, the way one anticipates the taste of a chocolate bar during the moment of unwrapping it.
Unfortunately, the wrapper turned out to be empty. There is no intrigue here, no real espionage, and there is certainly no suspense. More unforgivable than any of these things, however, is that for all that the hero and the heroine profess to be experts in all the classics (in the original Greek and Latin!) there is nary a glimmer of intelligence in this book.
Where to begin? It's really quite simple: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation has nothing in common with Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel and everything in common with any random Harlequin romance that might fall off the shelf. Worse yet, we get two of the same agonizingly hackneyed plot for the price of one: while Eloise meets a tall, handsome, clever man whom she "hates," our nineteenth century heroine, Amy, has exactly the same experience. One of these plotlines would have been so much more than enough--but two? In two different time periods? What on earth is the point?
But really, to dwell on that at all is to disregard the other elements that are so much worse. For one thing, the characters, who comprise a Harvard historian, a multilingual ingenue, and a brilliant spy, are always a step behind the reader. Amy is supposed to be clever but misses the obvious clues to the Purple Gentian's identity; Richard (the Purple Gentian) is supposed to be the most skilled spy in England, yet leaves his house through the front door in his disguise. Moreover, his whole family knows his identity, which seems rather pointless. As for Eloise--she figures out the identity of the Pink Carnation about two hundred pages after the average reader, and she is supposed to be brilliant. Watching these characters stumble through their idiocy until the "revelation" of the truth finally dawns on them is about as enjoyable as chewing nails.
And yet...even all that is still not getting to the real issue, which is that there is no real plot. Sure, there are contrivances, and these all with one purpose: to put the characters in situations where they will fall in love and then--not much later on--make out. Constantly. If they're not doing it, they're thinking about it, and that's all they're thinking about--not the monarchy, not espionage, nothing but what is in their frilly nineteenth century pants. The sense I get from this novel is that it was set in the nineteenth century for no other reason than to stage a romance in period clothes, especially gowns that reveal heaving bosoms. Amy is a 21st century girl in Regency garb, engaging in premarital petting and sex without a second thought. Even the tiniest bit of internal conflict would have contributed to the character's believability, and there is none whatsoever.
So this is really a romance novel and nothing more, with the premise of espionage only existing in order to facilitate titillating encounters between a masked man and a girl who--even after several intense makeout sessions--fails in her stupidity to guess who he is. And since the aforesaid sessions are described very explicitly, and are the centerpieces of whatever plot there is, the book feels like some kind of swashbuckle-porn. I don't want to be cliched and call this book a "bodice-ripper," except...one of the makeout sessions actually is preceded (and precipitated) by the heroine's bodice getting ripped, so what can I do?
The quality of the writing during the many "romantic" moments is a disaster that truly dazzles in its awfulness. Take this, for example, as an appetizer: "His tangy cologne filled her nostrils, blotting out the scents of the garden, assaulting her with memory, weakening her with desire." Oh dear. Or better yet, this: "She cried out in her pleasure as a thousand diamond sparkles exploded across the back of her eyes and bathed her body in effervescent splendor."
Diamond sparkles. Diamond sparkles. Seriously, need I say more?
You might think that those are isolated examples, but they are actually only two of a vast array of turgid, florid, dreadful descriptions. The little espionage actually featured in this book--with one of the highlights being when Amy simply traipses into Napolean's conveniently empty study and riffles through his papers--only serves to link the endless pornographic sighing together into the semblance of a coherent shape. The heroine thinks of nothing but the strong, strong arms of that nasty man she "hates," the hero thinks of nothing but Amy's bouncing breasts, or behind, or whichever, and Eloise tells herself (repeatedly) that she has absolutely zero interest in that nasty, nasty, handsome man.
I'm sure a lot of people will tell me that it's just a "fun" book, but I guess that depends how you define "fun." To me, fun is suspense, intrigue, and characters I can care about; if I thought this sort of thing were "fun," I'd have hundreds of Harlequin romances to read and this would be a very different sort of blog. And as a last stroke of hilarity--this book actually comes with a Reader's Guide. You know, those questions at the end that are supposed to help you analyze and understand what you just read. How was I to know that this was a ridiculous, shallow book when it's dressed up to look like so much more? What I want to know is who actually needed the Reader's Guide!
For fun, mindless historical romance read Judith Merkle Riley instead, who with all her faults still makes an effort to camouflage the romances with coherent plots. Stay away from this unless you're looking for unadulterated, improbable, badly-written romance.