When outside is grey and miserable and summer has well and truly ended, there’s nothing like comfort reading.
My perennial favorite for cheering me up on a dull September day is Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, the first in her series about a group of spies who take up where the Scarlet Pimpernel left off, rescuing aristocrats from the guillotine and generally romping around Paris at the height of the French Revolution causing delightful mayhem.
Filtered through the research of Eloise Kelly, an American Ph.D. student in London who fortuitously stumbles across a cache of documents just as she’s about to abandon her research, Willig constructs an elaborate network of spies with floral monikers, secret identities and a lot of sexual tension.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, infamous scourge of the French Revolution, has retired. But Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s Chief of Police, can’t relax just yet. Sir Percy Blakeney may have abandoned a life of espionage and duelling, but in his place has sprung up the Purple Gentian, intent on continuing the Pimpernel’s work.
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Amy Balcourt, half-French, half-English and thoroughly impossible, longs to escape the English countryside and travel to Paris avenge her guillotined father. When her brother invites her to their house in Paris, she plots to join up with the Purple Gentian and finally get her chance to be a hero, not a lady. With her cousin Jane and their governess, the formidable Miss Gwen, in tow, she boards a boat to France only to find that they are not the only ones on board.
Richard Selwick is Napoleon’s pet Egyptologist – foppish, suave and ready to bore the entire room with his archeological interests, he’s less than happy to be stuck on a boat with Amy. She might be beautiful, but she’s insatiably curious – and if she gets too close, his secret identity as the Purple Gentian might be at risk.
200 years later, the papers that reveal what happened on Amy’s fateful visit to France are in the possession of one of Richard’s ancestors, Arabella Selwick, who’s more than happy to let Eloise take a peek. But first, she has to get past Arabella’s disapproving – and completely gorgeous – nephew Colin. Will Amy discover Richard’s identity? Will Colin let his guard down around Eloise? And who is the mysterious Pink Carnation?
Willig’s Pink series is a delightfully frothy confection of history, romance and mystery. Although she takes Baroness Orczy’s original Scarlet Pimpernel as inspiration, her plots are as taut as any contemporary thriller and her heroes are more than just Mills & Boon cut-outs.
Readers who prefer their historical espionage with a dollop of angst won’t be disappointed either – although not as heart-wrenching as Teresa Grant’s equally Pimpernel-inspired Malcom and Suzanne Rannoch series, Willig keeps the reader on the edge of their seat throughout – and just because her endings are happy, doesn’t mean there’s not a bumpy road to get there.
Best enjoyed in a steaming, flower-scented pink bubblebath with a pot of tea and a plate of macarons, if you like your bodices ripped and your buckles swashed, this is the perfect book to indulge in on a rainy day.
Love romance? Check out bestselling erotica author L. Marie Adeline’s list of 5 ‘Dirty’ Books that Changed Me.
What books do you turn to when you need a bit of comfort reading? Drop your recommendations in a comment below!