Monday, January 31, 2011

Review — The Orchid Affair by Lauren Willig

Summary (via Goodreads): "Pride and Prejudice lives on" (USA Today) in Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series, which has been hailed for its addictive blend of history, romance, and adventure. In The Orchid Affair, Willig introduces her strongest heroine yet. Laura Grey, a veteran governess, joins the Selwick Spy School expecting to find elaborate disguises and thrilling exploits in service to the spy known as the Pink Carnation. She hardly expects her first assignment to be serving as governess for the children of Andre Jaouen, right-hand man to Bonaparte's minister of police. Jaouen and his arch rival, Gaston Delaroche, are investigating a suspected Royalist plot to unseat Bonaparte, and Laura's mission is to report any suspicious findings. 

At first the job is as lively as Latin textbooks and knitting, but Laura begins to notice strange behavior from Jaouen-secret meetings and odd comings and goings.
As Laura edges herself closer to her employer, she makes a shocking discovery and is surprised to learn that she has far more in common with Jaouen than she originally thought...

As their plots begin to unravel, Laura and Jaouen are forced on the run with the children, and with the help of the Pink Carnation they escape to the countryside, traveling as husband and wife. But Delaroche will stop at nothing to take down his nemesis. With his men hot on their trail, can Laura and Jaouen seal the fate of Europe before it's too late?

Review:  I had planned on reviewing A Visit From the Good Squad (which I have been calling Welcome to the Goon Squad for a good couple weeks now, embarrassingly enough), but I think I’m going to get the chance to hear Jennifer Egan speak this week so I thought I’d hold off and instead talk about the latest in the Pink Carnation series, The Orchid Affair, which I read in one night, as I do most of Lauren Willig’s books.

There’s something addictive in Willig’s writing. Like chocolate, caffeine and some good wine all rolled into one, I just can’t seem to stop myself from devouring each book as soon as I can get my hands on it as quickly as possible.  Maybe it’s her heroines.  No matter their place in society, there’s always something strong, but slightly tragic about each of her characters, even if they’re heiresses, royalty, or, in this case, a self-sufficient governess.  Or maybe it’s that she blends so many genres so well.  Historical fiction, romance, and chick lit all rolled into one.  She’s created the perfect blend of suspense and sentimentality (and I use that word in the best way possible).

At first I was a little put off by the idea her love interest was a widower.  Something smacked of Jane Eyre to me (which I loved, but Laura is no soft-spoken governess like Jane).  There’s also something that always rubs me the wrong way about romances with widowers, as if the heroine is second best, and he’ll never really get over the love of his life who’s gone.  However, Willig deals with this incredibly well, turning what could just be a typical romance into an adult look at love and relationships.  Out of all eight of her books, I think this might be the most mature romance.  Plus, the kids were actually kind of interesting characters instead of an annoying nuisance like they could be.  I’ve read my share of historical romances and trust me, it can go very, very wrong when kids are introduced into the picture.

And though all of her books deal with war and spies, this was the first time I really understood the gravity of the situation.  Maybe because it was set in France or the fact there was a state of paranoia throughout the country, but this was the first book where I actually feared for the characters.  I always thought of these as fun spy romps, but as Willig described a “republican marriage” (where they strip ‘traitorous’ men and women, bind them together and throw them in the river) things didn’t seem so fun anymore. It made me want to read a historical non-fiction or two to I could fully understand the political and social landscape.

My only gripe is that things wrap up a bit too quickly, which I guess is the best gripe to have.  It seems like we get to the second half of the story and Willig realized she only have 100 pages or so to finish up and glossed over certain aspects of their travels.  Things moved especially quick when it came to Laura and Andre coming clean with each other and their relationship is resolved.  Their romance is underplayed overall for the bigger political tension and spy suspense, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but, hey, I'm not ashamed to admit a big draw for me with this series is the fact that Willig writes a damn good romance without feeling like I'm reading something that should have Fabio on the cover or something.  Andre seemed to find resolution faster than I would have expected.  (Plus, I just like my romance a little tortured so I wouldn’t have minded twisting the proverbial knife a bit)

There are so many good things that outweigh my nitpicking.  Eloise’s story, which could easily get stale now that she’s “got the guy,” is taking an interesting turn.  There were some great new characters, both likable and villainous (was Delaroche in the first Pink Carnation book?  I wasn’t sure if he was a call back to Selwick’s time as a spy or not).  I really hope to see the poet Whittlesby (who could easily be the new Turnip) in future books.  Willig seems to have a lot more stories to tell with the introduction of three new young females in Mischief of the Mistletoe, her Christmas-centric installment of the series. Now I’m just going to have to deal with some Pink Carnation withdrawal until book number eight.

Lit Snit Verdit: A

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