Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Title: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation
Author: Lauren Willig
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: NAL Trade
Published: 2005
Pages: 449

Rating: 3 out of 10

This book begins after the bloody French Revolution has recently ended. Amy Balcourte, whose parents were lost to the guillotine, dreams of joining the famous English spy The Purple Gentian (following in the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel). When she gets a chance to return to France and live with her brother Edouard, she jumps at the chance, and goes about secretly tracking down the Purple Gentian, who of course falls in love with her.

This unabashedly chick-lit book was certainly an entertaining read, if you are looking for some mindless fluff.
It had its funny moments, and although it most likely wasn't written this way by the author intentionally, many of the dramatic, swashbuckling scenes made me laugh at how ridiculous they were.

I wish that I could leave it at that - because The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which has been on my lengthy To Read list for quite some time, was relatively enjoyable.

However, there is no overlooking the implausibility of the plot, the painful characters, and weak writing here.

First of all, the whole thing was not very believable. There were plenty of gaping holes in the plot that the author patches up shabbily, if at all.

For example, the Purple Gentian, who is supposedly the most elusive and dangerous spy in all of France, is an idiot. A girl travels to France dreaming of finding him (as hundreds of girls do, as he is a tabloids heartthrob), and she finds him in a mere few days. He acts like a child around his mother, and he forgets everything else the moment that he is in Amy's presence. There is more, but in short, The Purple Gentian is no dangerous man.

Also, why would Edouard even invite Amy to France if, after that, he never shows an interest in her?

How did Amy discover where the Purple Gentian would be that night - and catch him - when the entire French police force has been trying to do just that for years?

And why would Geoff encourage the Purple Gentian to reveal his identity to Amy? Neither of them even know her! Geoff has never met her, and the Gentian has known her for a few hours. Geoff's excuse is that "not all women are shallow." Which also scarcely makes any sense.

This thing of there being an unending string of spies, all of whom have names based on colors and flowers, also seemed quite forced to me.
I have not looked into the sequels yet, but apparently more spies with color/flower names emerge. How will they ever pull that off? Even three seemed like a stretch to me, in this book.

I found the characters of Richard's mother, Amy's governess, and Jane to be endearing.
However, our two main characters - Amy and Richard - were insufferable, especially Amy.

Much like Bella in Twilight, Amy is always tripping, stumbling, falling, and blundering. She is also constantly wandering, clueless, into danger, though the Purple Gentian always comes to save her, of course. What is this attraction authors suddenly have with writing heroines that can't walk across the room without tripping and experiencing near-death situations?
Amy comes across as a senseless, idiotic girl without a solid thought in her pretty little head.

I also disliked that certain chapters were set in modern times, focusing on Eloise (a student who is writing a paper on French spies). They were jarring, and really took me out of the story about 1700's France. I skimmed over them hurriedly, and really could care less about Eloise's boots getting muddy, or her drinking hot chocolate, or the hot guy she had a crush on. This wasn't her story, and if this guy isn't going to be built up as a character and is only going to feature in a few paragraphs, why is he there?

Yet another negative aspect to this book was the bodice-ripping, Harlequin leaning it had whenever it reached a romance scene. These scenes were not only written in a sickeningly flowery, over-the-top dramatic manner, but they were just plainly too much. Kisses are described in lurid detail, and the many make-out sessions between Amy and Richard go on and on for tens of pages. Amy describes having her first orgasm as Richard fingers, her while lying the back of a rowboat being rowed by a third guy. These scenes felt entirely modern, and I felt that I wasn't reading historical fiction anymore, but some horrid romance novel.

All in all, this book admittedly did have its fun moments, but there were simply too many flaws for it be anything extraordinary.