Two women. Two wars. Two stories linked by the loss that both women suffered.
The Alice Network tells the story of Eve Gardiner, a female spy during the First World War, and Charlie St. Clair, a young American woman looking for her cousin who disappeared at the end of the Second World War. After Charlie’s indiscretions at college have led to an unwanted pregnancy, Charlie’s mother whisks her away to Europe where a visit to a Swiss hospital can take care of the Little Problem. But Charlie seizes the opportunity to step out on her own, following the clues that bring her to meet Eve Gardiner in England and then embarking on a road trip through the villages and graveyards of France.
When we first meet her, Eve Gardiner is a drunken mess. Her broken finger joints a picture of her broken life, beaten down by circumstances neither we nor Charlie can yet fathom. Her foul-mouthed demeanor and her readiness to pull a gun on any intruder disturbs Charlie, but Charlie’s determination to find her cousin Rose enables her to put up with Eve’s eccentricities. Chauffeured by Finn, Eve’s Scottish man-of-all-work, the two women set out across the French countryside, discovering each other’s stories, secrets, and sins, and the key to the puzzle that ties both of their lives together.
This novel was crafted in a very skillful fashion. The dual narrative switching between Eve’s third person narrative (1915) and Charlie’s first person narrative (1947) highlighted many themes such as: the societal role of early twentieth century women, the effect of pregnancy on a woman’s life, and the bonds of friendship that women share.
Eve’s story begins with her as a stuttering file clerk, but a file clerk that stares at recruitment posters and dreams of fighting on the front herself. When Captain Cameron offers her the chance to join the “Alice Network” as a spy, she embraces it as the only way she can escape the monotony of the tasks her world assigns to females. Charlie also suffers from being put in a box by virtue of her sex. Her parents often remind her that the sole purpose of her attending college is to find a husband. In the beginning of the story, a bank teller refuses to hand over her own hard-earned funds without her father’s permission, highlighting the patriarchal prejudices of 1940s society. One of Eve’s friends sums up this theme best when she says, “Most women are bored, because being female is boring. We only get married because it’s something to do, and then we have children and find out babies are the only thing more boring than other women…. I should like to do something splendid, shouldn’t you? Something extraordinary.”
Although Eve’s friend declares babies a source of boredom, in the novel, they can be a downright source of disaster. The theme of unwed pregnancy surfaces several times in the novel. Charlie has the Little Problem that her mother is taking her to Switzerland to get rid of. She later discovers that her cousin Rose had also become pregnant out of wedlock and was pressured by her parents to abort. Decades earlier, Eve had suffered her own shock of becoming pregnant and dealt with it as she felt she must. For each of these women, the pregnancy has the potential to shatter their entire world. Charlie and Rose’s pregnancies will cause them to be ostracized and shunned. Eve’s will put her in the power of the man she is trying to outwit and dash her dreams of doing something extraordinary with her life.
Yet despite the treatment of women by society and the problems that pregnancy brings, Eve and Charlie are both buoyed up by female friendships. Eve’s mentor in the spy ring, Lili, is a bright-souled and courageous woman who would give up her own life for the women she served with. Charlie’s older cousin Rose is a memory that brings continual laughter and joy. In the end, Eve and Charlie forge a new friendship with each other, as they approach the perilous end to their journey that will mean a new beginning for both of them.
Although the story resolved itself, I found the resolution a little bleak and without the redemption I was hoping for. While I was intrigued by Eve’s story, I disliked her as a character. One scene where she seduced a married man that she had feelings for was particularly unsettling, especially as Eve was fully aware the feelings of remorse and guilt she was saddling him with. The only portrayal of God’s hand in the story (“We’re mortals; we sin. It’s our task in life. Le Grand Seigneuer forgives us–that’s His.”) isn’t robust enough to deal with the utter devastation caused by the wars and especially the devastation wreaked upon the main characters’ lives. Eve’s response–“I do not believe in God anymore”–is perhaps a historically accurate one, but not a satisfying one. And even the consummation of vengeance still leaves a feeling of hollowness at the end of the novel.
This book was far afield from the historical time periods I normally enjoy; however, my enjoyment of Kate Quinn’s previous novels lured me into beginning it and her superb narrative style and pacing kept me going.