A year or two ago I was at the 3 for the price of 2 table at Borders and picked up a book that looked interesting, “The Deception of the Emerald Ring,” by Lauren Willig. I read it and enjoyed it, but was somewhat disappointed to find out it was the third novel in the series – meaning that I likely missed allusions to past events. My curiosity was somewhat piqued by the realization that these books were somewhat based off of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” a classic book that I had never read. At that point I was going to do a pseudo-theme read and read “The Scarlet Pimpernel” along with all of Willig’s books. Taking a break from my TBR ARC pile was going to be a challenge, so I decided to tackle this on my honeymoon, when I would have lots of reading time.
Because I did these as a theme read (and I’m lazy) I don’t want to write a separate review of each book, so I am going to subject you to a REALLY long post including mini-reviews of all five books. Feel free to just read the ones in which you are interested.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
“The Scarlet Pimpernel” is the story of a member of the British nobility who forms the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel to save from execution members of the French nobility during the revolution. The Pimpernel risks life and limb to smuggle victims away from the grasp of Madame La Guillotine.
I was prepared to find this rather boring and read it concurrently with Willig’s books, but I was immediately drawn into Orczy’s story. In fact, I could barely put this book down! Love, intrigue, all but certain death, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” has it all! In addition, it is very well written and very compelling. Those of you who are put off by ‘classics,’ this is one you should give a chance.
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
In “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation,” Willig begins a dual-time period story. In the present is Eloise, a Harvard grad-student of history, working on her thesis paper in London. While researching the ‘flower spies’ that followed in the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel during and immediately after the French Revolution she applies to view the family papers of the Selwicks, descendants of the spy known as The Purple Gentian. Her real goal is the find the identity of the elusive spy known as the Pink Carnation. Reading through the Selwick’s papers, reading about the lives of Jane, Amy, and Richard (the Purple Gentian), Eloise thinks she just might figure it out. Now if only she could figure out Colin Selwick, hot and cold descendant of Lord Richard.
Let’s be honest. Willig’s books are total fluff. Eloise spends an awful lot of time wondering about Colin, being annoyed by Colin, thinking about Colin’s dreamy smile. Besides that, the books aren’t even really proper historical fiction, because all of these flower spies never really existed, the Scarlet Pimpernel included. That being said, the books are highly engaging, and that is coming from someone who can’t stand chick lit and doesn’t generally, as a rule, read fluff. In addition, Willig is (was, as of the writing of this novel) a grad student in history, so she sets the scene of late 18th/early 19th century London and Revolutionary France very well. She even has a lengthy letter to the reader in the end of the book, pointing out some of the facts and explaining the liberties she took with them.
The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig
In “The Masque of the Black Tulip,” Eloise finds herself in a car with Colin on her way to his family seat in the countryside to view more of his family’s papers. She isn’t sure how to feel about this, as he hasn’t been the most forthcoming with the documents, but she is excited to view the papers – even if his aunt did have to trick him into taking her.
The rest of the Selwick papers turn out to be a treasure trove indeed. The Pink Carnation is established by this time, but the identity is unknown to all but a select few people in the war department and around the Selwick clan. In fact, it is the people around the Selwick clan who are falling under suspicion – including Lord Richard Selwick’s younger sister Henrietta and his best friend Miles – a deadly suspicion, as the deadly French spy the Black Tulip wants to ensure that the Pink Carnation will no longer meddle in their affairs. Unfortunately, Eloise’s research is cut short when Colin abruptly asks her to be ready to leave immediately and dumps her on the first train home.
I really enjoyed the storyline between Henrietta and Miles, I think they had the cutest of all of the love stories. It was during “The Masque of the Black Tulip,” however, that I realized just how formulaic these books are, in that every novel includes a pair who will fall madly in love and be married, and in how their love is described. Yes, there are also sex scenes in these books. They are not graphic or frequent enough to classify this as a romance novel for me, they are basically the exact same sex scene that you are forced to read in every historical fiction novel of late that seems to feel this is a necessity. However, somehow the story remained engaging in spite of these drawbacks.
The Deception of the Emerald Ring by Lauren Willig
Eloise hasn’t heard from Colin since he put her on the train and is reluctant to call his aunt and seem desperate, so currently she doesn’t have access to their papers. However, she is doing some of her own research at the British Library and comes across another thread in the story of the Pink Carnation – Letty Alsworthy. In a flurry of confusion, Letty ends up married to her sister’s suitor, Geoffry Pinchingdale. What Letty doesn’t know is that Geoffry is a fellow spy of both the retired Purple Gentian and the very active Pink Carnation. Geoffry has to leave immediately after the wedding for Ireland to put down a revolution and is followed by his annoyed wife, disguised as a widow. Out of necessity, Letty is eventually let into the Pink Carnation’s circle so that she can help, or at least not hinder their mission. As if all of this reading isn’t exciting enough to Eloise, she runs into Colin at a party and he asks her for a date.
The ‘historical’ storyline in this book is pretty good. Willig works around the Irish rebellions and the fear that they would open the way for Napoleon to invade England. In addition, Letty and Geoffry have a pretty entertaining relationship. A series of serious misunderstandings occur that keep them at odds for a very long time. Eloise, however, is completely annoying in “Emerald Ring.” The beginning is composed almost exclusively of whining to herself about how Colin hasn’t called in a whole 4 days or something ridiculous, when she knows he doesn’t even have her phone number. Unlike the other books, I would say that I enjoyed this one in SPITE of Eloise’s story.
The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig
In “The Seduction of the Crimson Rose,” Eloise’s life is looking up. Not only does she have a date with Colin, she also has an appointment to look through the papers of the Vaughn collection. Lord Vaughn is a figure who has been constantly reappearing in her research, although she cannot figure out precisely for whom he is really working. While looking through the papers, Eloise uncovers a fascinating story: The Pink Carnation gives Vaughn the task of employing Letty’s sister Mary for the purpose of entrapping the Black Tulip. Eloise also manages to find the reason that Colin has been so cautious around her.
I was really surprised when I realize who the protagonists of this story were going to be. Based on her description in “The Deception of the Emerald Ring,” I didn’t have a very good opinion of Mary. Willig wrote her as much more intelligent in this book than I expected, although I suppose she did have a certain wiliness about her. Vaughn was essentially the same character he was shown to be earlier, although still a surprising choice for a hero. It definitely worked, though, and Mary and Vaughn quite deserve each other. Eloise was much less neurotic here than in “The Deception of the Emerald Ring.” She has finally learned to relax somewhat about both her research and about Colin.
Willig has another book, “The Temptation of the Night Jasmine” being released next January. You can read an excerpt here.
Are you intrigued? Buy any of these books on Amazon.