On Friday night Sapphire and I trekked to Cambridge to hear Lauren Willig read from her latest installment of The Pink Carnation series, The Orchid Affair. Willig was just as charming and friendly as you would hope, coming from the creator of Eloise Kelly—modern day Harvard Grad student and lover of swashbuckling men in knee breeches. After meeting Willig (and getting my book signed) I decided I had to write about my love affair with The Pink Carnation series (with a small review of Orchid).
I bought The Secret History of the Pink Carnation in August of 2007. I needed a few books to entertain me on my flight to London for my semester abroad and the pretty pink cover and the tag line “Pride and Prejudice Lives On” caught my attention. Normally I avoid P&P, or any Austen variations for that matter, but this one didn’t recreate my favorite characters or continue their story. I’m not sure what I was expecting, since clearly Pride and Prejudice does not involve spies, but it was enough for me to make an impulse purchase. And I’m so glad I did!
The mix of modern characters and historic ones is refreshing. Both sets of characters are well-rounded, likable and humorous. Eloise’s escapades in London remind me of my time in England and I can now also relate to her flashbacks to Cambridge, MA. I love that Eloise isn’t perfect. She makes mistakes, cops to them and does it with a flair for fashion. The heroines of the historical part are very different from one another, but are still appealing, strong and bring history to life (with a healthy dose of romance and espionage). Granted, I’m pretty sure women in the Napoleonic era did not always act like Amy or Henrietta or Mary or Penelope. But, I love them anyway.
I was a little hesitant about the latest book. Firstly, Laura, the female protagonist, is a completely new character (maybe she was mentioned in passing in a previous book, but I don’t remember) and the male protagonist is unfamiliar to the reader as well. Previous books follow characters well established in the Pink World. The first book is about Lord Richard Selwick, the second about his sister (Henrietta) and friend (Miles). The third about his other friend (Geoff), the fourth about Geoff’s previous infatuation (Mary) and the fifth and sixth books are about Henrietta’s two best friends (Charlotte and Penelope, respectively). Finally, the seventh book features a character mentioned in every Pink Carnation book (Mr. Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh). So in this close-knit world, where do Laura and Andre fit in? Sure, there are some connections—Laura is an agent of the Pink Carnation and Lord Richard trained her in espionage, but the association isn’t as strong.
Anyway… Laura Grey is a governess by day, spy by night, cunningly deposited into the household of Fouche’s cousin and official in the French government, Andre Jaouen. Laura longs to break free of her monotonous existence as a governess and puts all her effort into the subterfuge, hoping that success in this mission will make her a permanent part of the Pink Carnation’s league. However, as she worms her way into the Jaouen family, she discovers that Andre may not be all that he claims.
The Orchid Affair captures all the fun and romance of the first few books, while still maintaining its hold on history. Andre Jaouen isn’t as dashing or romantic or rugged as Lord Richard, Geoff or Alex, but he is swoonworthy in his own way. I never thought I’d be attracted to a character with children, but his relationship with them is so sweetly and realistically written that I couldn’t help myself. At one point I wanted to enter the book and become Laura just so I could become a part of that family, and adopt cute little Pierre-Andre. (I was pleasantly surprised with Willig’s ability to write children, especially given some of the previous books steamy, yet tasteful, sex scenes. BTW, bring those back Lauren!)
Despite the somewhat mushy, Sound of Music feel, the spy action melded nicely. The romance, character development and spy plot all complemented each other in a way reminiscent of the first few books. For me, some of the other books relied too much on the action and made some scenes seem contrived or unrealistic. Other times, like in The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, the action, more specifically the intertwining of various armies and their spies, was just too confusing. I’ve even read Blood Lily two or three times and I’m still not entirely sure how the disagreements in India relate to the Pink Carnation and the French Revolution.
Overall, I found myself most pleasantly surprised. While I knew I would enjoy The Orchid Affair, I had some concerns. Previously the first three installments were my favorites of the series, but Orchid just might bump Emerald Ring out of the running for second place (the first book in a series is almost always my first favorite). I was also excited to see Augustus Whittlesby, my favorite flighty poet, make an appearance or two. And, lucky for me, I heard on Friday that Augustus will soon be getting his own book! Next January, come faster!