REVIEW of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig

“Sync’ me! If it isn’t that demmed, elusive pimpernel!” The Scarlet Pimpernel has always been a favorite of mine, the book, the musical, and both the movie versions–starring Leslie Howard (1934) and Anthony Andrews (1982). Perusing several historical fiction blogs, I was intrigued to learn that Lauren Willig has created a whole spin-off series from the original Pimpernel books by Baroness Orczy.

The premise of the first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, is that after Percy Blakeney retired, a young nobleman named Lord Richard Selwick–formerly part of the Pimpernel’s league–picked up where Percy left off. Creating the nom de plume of The Purple Gentian, Richard Selwick poses as a student of the antiquities, spying on Napoleon and giving much needed intelligence to the British War Office.

Amy Balcourt, whose father was guillotined during the Terror, has spent her life dreaming of joining these spies, first the Pimpernel and then the Gentian. She journeys to France with her cousin Jane (and a formidable elderly chaperone who uses her parasol as a weapon) to see if she can find clues leading to the Purple Gentian’s identity. On the passage over, the ladies are thrown into the company of Lord Richard Selwick. An instant attraction springs up between Amy and Richard, but when she learns that he unpatriotically associates with the French regime for the purpose of studying Egyptian artifacts (his cover identity), she immediately and emphatically despises him.

The remainder of the book is the story of Richard Selwick falling in love with Amy Balcourt as she falls in love with both him and with the Purple Gentian, unaware that they are the same person. Lauren Willig has an excellent command of description and witty repartee. Her breezy style is more characteristic of Georgette Heyer than Baroness Orczy and fits well with the time period.

The idea behind the book is an interesting one. Unfortunately, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation had two main flaws. First, the plot was incredibly implausible. Somehow, all of the other characters in the book know/guess who the Purple Gentian is with remarkably little trouble while M. Delaroche, the French agent in charge of capturing the Gentian, is hopelessly thrown off track for most of the book. Secret papers are continually unguarded in unlocked studies, and featherbrained young ladies make the most intelligent deductive leaps imaginable. Spying seems like the easiest thing in the world.

The second failing of the book was that it seemed far more concerned with human anatomy than it was with history. You can finish the book having very little idea of what Napoleon was actually trying to do, while having a very vivid idea of what the main characters look like in a state of undress.  In Baroness Orczy’s book, Percy and Marguerite’s relationship is very romantic without having explicit sex scenes. Lauren Willig doesn’t know when to shut the bedroom door and let her characters have some privacy. I also don’t think that Percy Blakeney would really have approved of the Purple Gentian spending half his time staring at Amy’s derriere or wishing that she would jump up and down again so he could watch her breasts jiggle. If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “titillating,” which was disappointing since this book had potential to be a lot more than a grocery store novel.

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