Eloise Kelly is in England researching her dissertation on English espionage during the Napoleonic Wars; especially a shadowy figure known only as the Pink Carnation. Eloise’s friendship with Colin Selwick (whose ancestry included spies who worked with this secret agent) has permitted Eloise access to the family’s carefully guarded personal papers. Initially wary, the relationship between Eloise and Colin has blossomed into something more than professional. The “story-within-a-story” format shuttles between the present and the historic as Eloise strives to uncover the identity of the Pink Carnation, the most elusive spy of all.
It seems everyone in a relationship, past or present, arrives at a life-changing crossroad. All of the principal characters choose to, or are forced to, disguise their ulterior motives. Eloise and Colin are at Selwick Hall planning an honorary banquet with an unwelcome filming crew on-site. Among the unsuspecting invitees are Jeremy, (Colin’s Stepfather) Joan, (Colin’s ex) Serena, (Colin’s sister) and Dempster (Serena’s ex) who are all thrown together. Why? Perhaps it is the rumors of an ancient treasure hidden on the estate’s property. “Everyone putting on a false face, playing a role, perpetually engaged in a masque without a script.” (318)
Eloise’s academic grant is also soon to expire and she must make the decision to accept a teaching fellowship back in the United States or impose on Colin to support her if she remains in England. Will there be a “together” future for Eloise and Colin?
Time-tunneling back, Napoleon plans for the invasion of England and will unveil a secret weapon during a masque at his summer residence at Malmaison, France. American expatriate Emma Delgardie is a favorite with the Bonaparte family. She attended Madam Campan’s school for young ladies with her close friend Hortense, Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter. A child bride at 15, widowed at 19, Emma is pixie-like-pretty, gaudy, and savvy. Everyone is attracted to Emma, especially her “men.”
Nobody is attracted to Augustus Whittlesby but England’s home office due to his impenetrable espionage cover as a dramatic but mediocre poet. Never being taken seriously is his lot since he is forbidden to reveal the clever, intelligent, sensitive man that he actually is. The only way for Augustus to gain entry to Malmaison and the secret weapon is by deceiving Emma into partnering with him to create the nautical-themed masque. While Augustus works with Emma he is infatuated with another woman: Miss Jane Wooliston. “She was like a moonbeam, a faint gleam of light across the sky, making the throat grow dry and the heart constrict, beautiful to contemplate, impossible to hold. No. It wasn’t right. He wouldn’t give up this easily.” (177)
With just a minor shuffling of dates, Willig brilliantly interweaves verifiable historical events into this elaborate intrigue. There are famous guest appearances: Emma’s Cousin Robert Livingston, broker of the Louisiana Purchase; Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat’ and a very convincing Napoleon Bonaparte. Mr. Fulton sends to Malmaison, not one but TWO, inventions including the plans for each: one harmless, one deadly: “He should have noticed. “Another device?” “That would be the logical conclusion” said Miss Gwen crisply. “Another device. One he doesn’t want anyone to see. But someone knows about it.” (231)
Poetry is the predominant theme of the story and fittingly the language of romance. Each chapter is headed by a whimsical verse from the masque and poetic quotes are in abundance. All of chapter 13 is cleverly epistolary as Emma and Augustus show a budding affinity for each other through their missives.
More character-driven than action-packed, I found The Garden Intrigue a stirring and deeply felt romance. Ms Willig confidently showcases her literary maturity with page upon page of scintillating, heart-rending, emotional dialogue as she draws the reader to the innermost souls of the principals who guardedly probe for love, trust, and honesty in a treacherous environment. “You have every chance in the world and you chose to be what you are.” Augustus’s lips moved with difficulty. “What am I?” He could see Emma’s throat move as she swallowed. “A fain’eant. A do-nothing.” She blinked away tears, tossing her head defiantly back.” (276)
Yes, I laughed often, (picture Miss Gwen as a pirate captain), but also wept as Ms Willig tenderly recounts the isolated loss and grief in the lives of the hero, heroine, and others. This complex mystery took me through more twists and turns than an amusement park ride. I was left captivated by the thrilling human drama that is The Garden Intrigue like no other in this series, and I’ve read them ALL. Lauren Willig, already on top of her game, raises the bar once again. Need I say more?
5 out of 5 Stars
The Garden Intrigue: A Pink Carnation Novel (Book 9), by Lauren Willig
Penguin Group (2012)
Hardcover (400) pages
Kindle: ASIN: B005GSZZ2O
Cover image courtesy of Penguin Group © 2012; text Jeffrey Ward © 2012, Austenprose