It is always a very special day when a new Pink Carnation novel is released. I had marked my calendar on January 20th with a big red X in anticipation. Lauren Willig is one the few authors that I just go nuts over. (How unprofessional to gush like a schoolgirl. I will be kind on myself and allow this one indulgence. Well maybe more than one, but that is another story.) The Orchid Affair is Willig’s eighth novel in the popular Pink Carnation series set during the Napoleonic Wars between England and France. They involve historical espionage, romance, swash, buckle and a fair dose of comedy and sardonic wit – neatly ticking off all the check boxes on my ideal historical/romance/comedy reading hit list.
The opening chapters of Orchid were an abrupt change after the high comedy of Willig’s last offering, The Mischief of the Mistletoe. Get ready to shift gears. No Christmas pudding capers here! It is 1802 post-revolutionary Paris. The tone is serious and somber; lots of cold rain, a prison interrogation and a visit by Madame Guillotine. Brrr!
Our heroine Miss Laura Grey is eager to do anything other than the governessing that has consumed her life for the past sixteen years. Recruited by the elusive flower spy, The Pink Carnation, she has just graduated from the Selwick Spy School and traveled to Paris on her first mission to, of course, do what she knows best, be a governess, albeit an undercover one, teaching young children and blending into the woodwork as a servant in the household of an important police official. Undercover as Laure Griscogne’s (code named The Silver Orchid), her assignment is to observe and collect information on the movements of her new employer Andre Jaouen who works at the Prefecture de Paris under Louis-Nicolas Dubois, Chief of Police and protégé of Joseph Fouche, Bonaparte’s Minister of Police. Jaouen and his arch-rival Gaston Delaroche, an agent of Fouche, are investigating a Royalist plot to overthrow the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, and reinstate the Bourbon line.
Paris is grim and imposing – a police state – and not at all what Laura remembered from her childhood. Orphaned at sixteen by the untimely death of her artistic parents, famous French sculptor Michel de Griscogne and Italian poetess Chiara de Veneti, Laura has spent the last half of her life earning her bread in the oppressive governess trade in England. Her current employers wife Julie Beniet died four years prior to her arrival and their two young children have until recently been raised by a family friend in the country. Jaouen is suspicious that Laura is a plant in his house by Gaston Delaroche, the mad megalomaniac to sinister Fouche. He does not quite know what to make of this prim, matter-of-fact governess. She on the other hand, is as equally curious of him. Handsome and austere, this disheartened Revolutionist ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité are now a muddled dream after the coup d’état of Napoleon and his self-installation as First Consul. The age of revolutionary enlightened for both of them is now a regime of terror and fear.
Teaching Latin texts and Aesop’s Fables seem rather dull and un-spy-like to Laura until her employer’s secret meetings, suspicious doings and shocking reveal change the course of her mission. As Andre and Laura put aside their differences, they are forced to flee the city as husband and wife with the children under the cover of traveling performers in a Commedia dell’arte troupe. In hot pursuit is the evil Gaston Delaroche.
As in all of the previous novels in the Pink Carnation series except The Mischief of the Mistletoe, the parallel plot with contemporary scholar Eloise Kelly prompts the historical story as she conducts her own research for her doctoral thesis on the enigmatic British flower spies during the Napoleonic Wars. Her ongoing relationship with Colin Selwick, a direct descendant of the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation, brings them to Paris for Colin’s estranged mother’s weekend birthday party. As both plots unfold, will the Pink Carnation’s help be enough to assist Laura and Andre to safety and success, supply Eloise with enough footnotes for her dissertation and the reward of a marzipan pig?
What a fun adventure The Orchid Affair is. Since a ladies imagination is very rapid, I was guessing at plots left and right. Hmm? 1.) Stern widower in a dripping greatcoat and prim impoverished governess? Will there also be mad wife hidden in the attic like Jane Eyre? 2.) Brave widower and prim governess flee nasty government officials? Do they sing next and go mountain climbing like Sound of Music? 3.) Stoic widower and prim governess escape by disguise as actors in a comedy troupe a la Scaramouche? Oh, it doesn’t matter in the least because it is all totally original in the end. I just like playing these mind games. Readers will see the fun too and join in the hunt.
Fans of the series will be pleased to be back in the “Pink” again. As a standalone novel, The Orchid Affair is an historical triumph. Willig is known for her romances, but this really is heavier on the historical fiction than romance aside. It hearkens back deeply to The Scarlet Pimpernel for espionage and swash. A true Anglophile, I didn’t know much about this period of French history until I read For the King this past summer. This novel covers a later period in Napoleon’s reign as First Consul by a few years, but I did recognize many of the same names. Thankfully, less Googling. The research alone must have warranted many trips to the actual Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police in Paris. The detail is quite stunning.
One of Willig’s trademarks is to interlink characters from one novel to the next. It gives the reader a sense of continuity, like one big happy “Pink” family. She has successfully achieved this by introducing a character, albeit briefly, in novel and then highlighting them in another. We meet some old acquaintances here too: Lady Selwick, the Pink Carnation appears, and one of my favorites, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, Our Lady of the Sharp Umbrella, but the two new protagonists, Laura Grey and Andre Jaouen take up the majority of the narrative, and I could not be happier. They are delightful: both guarded and reserved, they are hiding their real personalities that come to life because of circumstance and association. Their romance is well wrought and touching. Willig’s writing is just, well, awesome. There are few who can surpass her in witty dialogue and imaginative plots. She is top on my list of contemporary authors.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Orchid Affair: A Pink Carnation Novel (Book 8), by Lauren Willig
Dutton, Penguin Group (USA)
Hardcover, (400) Pages