Sometimes you just need a break. Not that my reading has not been enjoyable lately. It has. But it’s also been heavy. Dark. Tortured, in some cases. I need something light. For some people, that would be People Magazine (guilty on occasion) or some thin paperback with stylized silhouettes of stilettos and bling. For me, it is Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, or what I like to call chick lit for smart girls.
First of all, Ms. Willig has a law degree and a graduate degree, both from Harvard. Secondly, she is meticulous in her historical research. Finally, she knows how to write a great story. Hence my love of her series of floral spies, spirited and independent women and dashingly handsome men, and thrilling adventure during England’s Napoleonic Wars (with France…) at the beginning of the 19th century. The series, inspired by Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (Fabulous! You should all read it! Now!), begins with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and continues through to this most recent installment, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria. Each book follows one enterprising heroine amongst this group of friends and relations and her always passionately-devoted-though-not-always-necessary hero, though Plumeria takes a slightly different approach to our romantic couple. While in the previous books, the couple has always been young though appropriately adult, Plumeria ventures into middle-aged romance, this one between Miss Gwen, previously introduced as Miss Jane Wolliston’s fearsome and dragon-like chaperone, and charming, roguish Col. William Reid of the Army of the British East India Company. The unlikely duo is thrown together by the disappearance of Reid’s daughter and Jane’s little sister from their boarding school, and Gwen and Reid set out to find them. In the meantime they are attacked by hired thugs, thrown unexpectedly together in a boarding house, fight off highwaymen, investigate an opera star in the employ of the French, and attempt to thwart Jane’s apparent new suitor, all while watching out for a new menace in the spy-world who calls himself The Gardiner.
Sound ridiculous? Oh, it is.
Wonderfully so, though. It’s just the right thing for a rainy day and a cup of tea.
This story and all the stories in the series are held together by the interconnectedness of the characters and the overarching storyline of American PhD student, Eloise, her search for the Pink Carnation, and her romance, or lack of, with Colin, a handsome yet standoffish Brit whose grandmother is the care-taker of most of the documents surrounding the legend of the Pink Carnation. I enjoy Eloise and her exploits, but I honestly find that plot device to be weaker and more superfluous than the actual story of the Pink Carnation’s spy-ring.
No one is going to nominate Willig for the Pulitzer any time soon. However, she is an engaging and intelligent writer who is expertly balancing a highly complex and intricate web of real and invented events and characters over several novels. It is a feat of continuity that strives toward the complexity of J.K. Rowling’s world building in Harry Potter. Though her prose is, at times, almost as purple as the lurid Gothic romances she lampoons with Miss Gwen’s writing project, it is purple with a wink and a grin and is used to great and entertaining effect.
Honestly, I eagerly await each new Pink Carnation novel because they are just good fun, plain and simple. The characters are likeable, the villains are suitably melodramatic, the romantic tension is realistic, the writing is good, and the history is accurate. (I do appreciate her note discussing historical truth vs. invented plot devices at the end of each novel.) Though I would suggest starting at the beginning of the series, it really only matters if you care about Eloise’s plot line making sense. The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, though not my favorite, is another entertaining entry to Willig’s series, sure to satisfy her fans until the next one comes out. I love these books, and I highly recommend them!