A sexy, smirking, determined-to-charm historical-romance debut takes on English-French espionage in Napoleonic Paris.
Newcomer Willig makes good use of an Ivy League education heavy on Shakespeare and Hugo as she follows young American Eloise Kelly to London to concoct a juicy graduate dissertation: a thesis created out of the escapades of a famously obscure English spy at the turn of the 19th century, the Pink Carnation. An offshoot of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his cohort the so-called Purple Gentian, who aided French aristocrats to elude the guillotine, the Pink Carnation may be related to the Selwick family, whose descendants Eloise seeks out on a rainy day in London. Much to her astonishment—though not the reader’s—the current owner of Selwick Hall, Mrs. Arabella Selwick-Alderly, not only invites poised, well-spoken Eloise into her home, but allows her access to a large trunk of letters for an all-night read. Thus the account of feisty English schoolgirl Amy Balcourt comes to view as Amy relates her decisive trip to Paris in 1803 to regain her rightful place next to her brother Edouard after the murder of their French aristocrat father 15 years earlier. Setting off across the Channel with her trusty cousin Jane and their grim chaperone, Miss Gwen, Amy meets the witty rake Richard Selwick (a.k.a. the Purple Gentian) on his shadowy dual errand to organize the Egyptian antiquities collection for Bonaparte. The repartee sparkles from then on, as the Hepburn-Tracy pair engage wits and try to outspy each other. Both are loyally committed to foiling the Emperor’s plans to invade England and to keeping the Gentian’s identity hidden from villainous Assistant Minister of Police, Gaston Delaroche. The plot, while intentionally contrived (naturally, Eloise also finds a suitable opponent in attractive Selwick scion Colin), still manages to compel, and romance conventions like Amy’s “kissable indentations over the collarbones” are well observed, all in relentlessly effervescent prose.
Masked men and low bodices in a corny, playful romp—with a sequel in the works.