Fiction: “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation” by Lauren Willig

Okay, so I know I’ve read a lot of Regency romances this year. But none of them quite measured up to what I wanted (although I’ll admit, Beyond Seduction came close). While there are multitudinous reasons why I read and/or buy historical romances, I prefer them to have:

a) light-to-heavy banter between the couple;
b) the lead female character having some power in the relationship [meaning, even if she is sold as a sorry form of cattle to a duke or something, her personality and characterization gives her power over her man];
c) action and violence, but not against the lead female character perpetrated by the lead male character.

A few years ago, I had picked up The Secret History of the Pink Carnation on a whim. Okay, actually, I picked up the third book in the series first, and because I’m an idiot with a material bent, I then went and bought Secret History because apparently, libraries don’t work. From the way the back cover reads, I did not think it would be so … romance-ey. I was pleasantly surprised. (There’s a part in there in a boat that doesn’t usually get talked about in Regency romances. Hoo boy.)

The novel (and its subsequent sequels, so — spoiler alert?) is framed. Eloise Kelly is a Harvard graduate student, studying the “Flower Spies” following the French Revolution: The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian, and the Pink Carnation. She can find plenty of research on the first two, but there’s nary a scrap of research about the Carnation, though the spy was mentioned in some papers of the descendants of the Gentian. She’s in London, and the descendant allows Eloise to read through the papers, because the secret to the Pink Carnation is in the letters.

Part of the modern-day subplot is that the descendant’s nephew, Colin Selwick, doesn’t want Eloise to have anything to do with the letters; he’s afraid she’ll publish what she learns, apparently not understanding what a graduate thesis is. (Do they have thesis … thesii … oh bother — do they have those in England?) And of course, their budding romance is telegraphed all the way from page four, practically. Because when a man and a woman detest each other on sight, and then get thrown into a highly unlikely situation (the aunt allows Eloise to spend the night in her townhouse so she can continue to read the papers, then having Eloise scurry about to the kitchen at three a.m. wearing a nightie and, of course, running into Colin), they are going to fall in love. Writing 101, people.

The bulk of the story centers on Amy Balcourt and Lord Richard Selwick. Amy is the sister of a French libertine who is ensconced in Napoleon’s court, but she has been living in England for years with relatives. France has just been deemed safe for return, so she and her cousin Jane Wooliston and their chaperone, Miss Gwen, head off to Paris. On the packet to Calais, they run into Lord Richard Selwick, who, unbeknownst to them at the time, is actually the heir to the Scarlet Pimpernel’s throne, the Purple Gentian. He is an Englishman who breaks Brits out of the Bastille and, overall, makes things very difficult for the Parisian police. Amy has wanted to help the Pimpernel and the Gentian all her life. So when Selwick doesn’t tell her who he is and is instead a bit of an ass, she of course hates him on sight.

Oh. Oh, I see what you did there.

The adventures that Amy gets into are a little far-fetched, but … it’s a romance novel! At least there weren’t any random amnesia plots or anything. Amy is a hysterical character – she’s full of spunk and fire. I had read some reviews of the book over on GoodReads, and some readers weren’t taken with the fact that the language sometimes sounds too modern. Again I say, who cares? It’s a romance novel. Are you really looking for substance in this soon-to-be-extinct Ring Ding of a book?

Here’s an example of both the language and how much I love Amy:

One hand on the door of the cabin, Amy gave an agitated hop that looked like it wanted to be a temper tantrum when it grew up. [84]

Amy is full of flounces, and quick tempers, and rushing into things without thinking them through, and … I just really loved her character. None of the other women I’ve read about in romance novels come close to the personality of Amy.

Having said that, I do want to … not warn, because some of you may actually like this. But this is a re-read. I’ve read up through the … fourth? book in the series? Yes, GoodReads confirms that I’ve read through Book 4. But what Ms. Willig does that, honest-to-goodness, I wish she didn’t, is that every book in the series introduces a new couple. And I understand why she does that – once Amy and Richard get married (shit — spoiler alert!), apparently they don’t have any more adventures. Which is bogus, in my opinion. Because I would TOTALLY read a book about Amy and Richard adjusting to married life. So the next book covers the romance between Richard’s sister Henrietta and … Miles, I think. Then the next one is another woman and Geoff, Richard’s other friend. Then aother female friend is introduced in Book 3, so Book 4 is all about her. And … again, it’s okay? But I want to know more about Richard and Amy.

THERE. Now I’m caught up. So I just have to finish this STUPID BOOK that I’m only still reading for two reasons: 1) I’ve been writing the review of it in my head since I picked it up at the library and 2) spite.

Grade for The Secret History of the Pink Carnation: 5 stars

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