The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig [book review]

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation coverThe Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig 
Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon
Release Date: December 27th 2006
Publisher: New American Library
Series: Pink Carnation #1

Goodreads description: Deciding that true romantic heroes are a thing of the past, Eloise Kelly, an intelligent American who always manages to wear her Jimmy Choo suede boots on the day it rains, leaves Harvard’s Widener Library bound for England to finish her dissertation on the dashing pair of spies the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. What she discovers is something the finest historians have missed: a secret history that begins with a letter dated 1803. Eloise has found the secret history of the Pink Carnation the most elusive spy of all time, the spy who single-handedly saved England from Napoleon’s invasion.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, a wildly imaginative and highly adventurous debut, opens with the story of a modern-day heroine but soon becomes a book within a book. Eloise Kelly settles in to read the secret history hoping to unmask the Pink Carnation’s identity, but before she can make this discovery, she uncovers a passionate romance within the pages of the secret history that almost threw off the course of world events. How did the Pink Carnation save England? What became of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian? And will Eloise Kelly find a hero of her own?

I’ve been wanting to read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and the series for a few years and it’s been an off and on interest that I never got to. I saw it at the library when I was picking out books for Bout of Books and immediately picked it up! I had forgotten/confused the premise a little, I knew it had to do with secrets (ha), spies, and history but I think I merged it with something else, too.

Eloise is a Harvard grad student in London researching spies in wars between England and France around and after the French Revolution. The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian are well-known examples but the Pink Carnation is still a mystery. The former two were exposed and written about at length, but nobody ever named the Pink Carnation. In Eloise’s eyes, the Pink Carnation was the best of them all and the most romantic. She seeks the mystery behind the mask and hopes to share it with the world.

I love history and I think it has a lot to do with how nosy I am. I like knowing people’s business and history is all about the lives of others. There were people in the past that did important things that affect us today and they had friends and loves and pets and houses and I need to know about them all! Didn’t they know people in the future would need to know about their life? I mean, seriously! Eloise’s interest in a specific figure in history wasn’t an exact situation I’ve been through but I could definitely understand her drive. She’s been through a lame break up and there’s a dashing masked man she can get to know. The only problem (besides him not being alive) is that nobody knows his true identity. She names her paper something more vague and pretends to research all of the spies at the time and begins inquiring with the descendants of known spies families. She hits some blocks and then finds the break she needs and reads the letters about Amy, a young woman who left France before the Revolution and Richard, the Purple Gentian.

I liked that all the information Eloise read in the letters were interpreted into a story instead of the story being epistolary. I don’t mind letters in books but I’m not a huge fan of books that are written only in letter form. There were some things that made me wonder how it was put together and what must have been included in letters. The history part of the story is in third person so you get to see inside their heads and it’s usually Richard or Amy. There are some things, like love scenes, that I wasn’t sure how they would have been written about in detail but maybe they didn’t mind sharing things like that, I don’t know. I’m sure people did write about physical happenings sometimes, so perhaps it all fits but I’m not completely sold. I enjoyed the way it was written, but there were some things that didn’t seem like they would have been easily translated from letters.

I enjoyed that the story incorporates Eloise and the modern-day story of her discovery and feelings along with the actual accounts of the Pink Carnation. I wasn’t sure going in how it would work out, but Willig did it well. It wasn’t exactly balanced, the story is more about Eloise’s discovery of the Pink Carnation so there’s more about that story than Eloise’s own story. Eloise’s part is told in first person and it was nice to get into her personal and quirky thoughts. It was a little weird to flip between first and third sometimes, but it doesn’t change often enough to be a huge problem. I liked both stories and every time it switched to one I was reluctant to let go of the story I was currently reading!

The story of the Pink Carnation isn’t exactly thrilling but I did find it enjoyable. The romance is similar to most others, which doesn’t make it bad. Amy and Richard start out bickering and there are obstacles but it is a pretty basic situation. There were some amusing side characters like Richard’s mother and some of his colleagues in masked business. The mystery aspect was not exciting for me. There are a few twists, but nothing is surprising. Some things in the story are more shocking to Eloise because of her preconceived views of the story as a whole, and her reaction to the story was entertaining.

I did like Eloise and enjoyed her story more than I expected to. It seemed funny to me that I like the modern part of the story so much. Eloise was enthusiastic and really cared about her subject of study. I enjoyed her interactions with Colin, the surly descendant of the Purple Gentian and Arabella, his aunt. There is definitely chemistry between Eloise and Colin along with antagonism, which is great. I’ve already read the second book so I know Eloise’s story and interactions with Colin continue in the next book but I’m guessing the modern story is strung out to keep you interested. I am, and I’m impatient!

3 star rating

I enjoyed The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but I don’t think it was amazing. The premise is interesting and characters are okay, but the mystery and plot fails to wow. I’m glad I read it and do plan to continue the series. Thankfully my library has e-copies of most of them (or maybe all, I’m not even sure how many there are!). I have already read the second book in the series and I actually think I enjoyed it more. I’ll read the rest of the series for as long as I’m interested. I probably won’t review each book in the series, but I might do a series/wrap-up sort of post at some point. I would recommend The Secret History of the Pink Carnation if you like: romance, spies, and silliness. 

Check out Lauren Willig‘s website!

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11 thoughts on “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig [book review]

  1. I always love books that at least try to tell a story in a different way, especially if they do a decent job of it. Much like you I am not a huge fan of epistolary stories as much. It’s too bad the author may not have executed the plot as well as they could have, but it definitely sounds interesting enough that I want to read it anyway! Great review!

    • I was kind of unsure going in because I knew she was researching and she got to the letters so I knew there would be letters, but I was pleasantly surprised with the way they were interpreted. It did work but occasionally there were those little nagging feelings about certain things, you know? It isn’t groundbreaking but for what it is, it was definitely enjoyable! I’ve read the three books after it and they’re all pretty quick going and I liked two of them a bit more than the first one!

  2. I’ve not read this series, but I keep hearing about it from friends, so I was really excited to see your review of it. Aren’t there a lot of books in the series? I wonder if they’re all written like this with 2 time periods? I’m with you in loving history, and wanting to find out as much as you can about people and social situations, so this one sounds like a whole lot of fun.

    • I think there are around 12 but there might also be side books. I looked on Goodreads a while ago but I think some are like Christmas books and other things, but there are eleven or twelve main books. I think the newest one actually came out recently. I’ve read 1-4 and they are all told in two time periods, but it isn’t really as distracting as it might seem because of how much Eloise talks about the story you’re reading about, if that makes sense. She’s studying it and she’s really involved and interested in it and discusses it with others and thinks over what it might mean. They are fun reads and they’re pretty quick, too!

    • I really enjoyed it, but it’s more of a romance than a spy book, if that makes sense. There’s spying involved and it’s interesting, but to me it didn’t seem like the focus. You could always give it a shot to see if it’s something you might enjoy!

  3. Pingback: Goodbye September! [recap] | a blighted one

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