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Review of "The Passion of the Purple Plumeria" by Lauren Willig

I first discovered the Pink Carnation novels back in February 2012 when I heard Ms. Willig read from The Garden Intrigue at Lady Jane's Salon (the first romance novel reading series in New York City).  Unfortunately, I wasn't immediately able to get my hands on that book, so my introduction to the series came in the form of The Orchid Affair, which vaguely reminded me of The Sound of Music (it is my favorite movie, so of course it did).

For those that don't know of the series, it follows a flowery spy network (each spy's alias is that of a flower), working against Napoleon, starting in 1802/3.  The first book in the series is The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which introduces readers to Miss Jane Wooliston, a young girl from a small British town, and her cousin Amy Balcourt, the daughter of a French aristocrat killed during the Reign of Terror.  The two girls, along with their chaperone, Miss Gwen, travel to Paris in search of the Purple Gentian, the successor to The Scarlett Pimpernel, in hopes of joining his spy network.  Of course, things don't go as they plan, and the Gentian is forced to retire, leaving a void in the British spy network, which was filled by The Pink Carnation, the most successful spy never to be unmasked by the French--or anyone.  At least, not until Eloise Kelly shows up in London in 2004, searching for the Carnation's identity for her dissertation.  The coolest thing about this series is that it jumps back and forth between the early Nineteenth Century and the early 21st, following not only the spy du jour but also Eloise's relationship with the Gentian's descendant, Colin Selwick.

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria is Miss Gwen's book.  For nine other books, spanning two years of fictional time, Gwen helped Jane run her spy network, considering them partners.  Gwen loved being a spy, and not just because she had finally escaped her life in her brother's home in Shropshire (a town that appears to have more sheep than people living there).  She has longed for a life that didn't involve living off of someone else, and spying had given her a purpose, so the last thing she wanted to do was return to England.  Unfortunately, she didn't have a choice as Jane's younger sister, Agnes, and a school mate, Lizzy Reid, disappeared from their boarding school (last seen in The Mischief of the Mistletoe--the only Carnation novel not to feature Eloise and Colin).  Fearing that someone had discovered Jane's identity and was using her sister to get to her, Gwen and Jane return to England, where they meet Colonel William Reid (father of  The Betrayal of the Blood Lily's Alex Reid), who had just arrived in the country to find that his daughter, Lizzy, is missing.  Teaming up with Colonel Reid, Gwen finds herself on the search for two 17-year-old girls and a mysterious Indian treasure.

Unlike the other books in this series, the protagonists are not in the first blush of youth--Gwen is 45 and Colonel Reid is nearly 10 years her senior and has five children (Kat, Alex, Jack, George, and Lizzy).  The difference in their ages compared to the other series protagonists is made dreadfully clear throughout the book, especially when they visit Miles and Henrietta, and at times it feels as if no one really takes Gwen seriously because she is so much older than the others.  They may call her Miss Gwen as a show of respect, but Jane has no problem hiding things from Gwen that she would have told to Amy or Henrietta had they been the one with her.  The fact that she was separate from the group was most obvious when she, William (Colonel Reid), and Jane flee to Miles and Henrietta's home after being attacked on their way to Selwick Hall.

William observes:
It was as though she had retreated into a plastic mold of herself, all the life, all the animation that had so captivated him, buried beneath a cold and brittle shell...and no one in the room, seemed to find anything out of the ordinary in this.  They smiled at one another and rolled their eyes as she cracked her wit at them, but not one of them noticed the pain beneath it.  They all, William noticed, referred to her casually as Miss Gwen, the honorific serving to set her apart from the rest of the group, a stranger even among her own friends" (345).

Part of this is because Gwen has held herself apart from the others, shielding her heart from another heartbreak, not wanting to get too close to anyone because of something in her past, but even if she hadn't behaved this way, the others would have felt separate from her because of her age, seeing her as having more in common with their parents than with them, many of whom (especially Miles) were afraid of her, although not quite as afraid as they are of the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale.

The strange thing about Gwen is that she doesn't behave as if she is that much older than the other characters, and until she revealed her age in this book, I believed her to be somewhere in her 30's.  She was termed a spinster, but in 19th Century parlance, that was a label applied to any unmarried woman over the age of 25.  In fact, it always seemed as if she wanted them to feel as if she was a lot older than them, especially in the first few books when all she did was poke people with her parasol.  This is something, I have found, that many people do in order to establish their authority over someone not much younger than them, which is what I thought Gwen was doing.  Apparently, I was wrong.

As for Gwen and William's relationship, I really enjoyed it.  I do believe that Gwen should have told William her secret much sooner than she did, but I understand why she didn't.  I love that the only person that could really see Gwen for who she really was is William, even if that freaked Gwen out from time to time.  I am also really glad that William didn't hold on to his anger over Gwen's omissions for too long.  It would have sucked for him to be mad at her even longer than he was because she didn't completely deserve it.

My one complaint about this book is the way time passes.  At the start of the book, we learn that Agnes and Lizzy have been missing for two weeks prior to Jane and Gwen arriving at the school.  From there, Gwen and William end up spending a week in an inn, waiting for William to recover from a wound.  This marks 3 weeks from the time the girls went missing and one since she and Jane got to the school.  However, only a few days later, Gwen remarks that she and William had known each other for 3 weeks at the same time saying that the girls had been missing for the same amount of time.  This is impossible.

Overall, I did enjoy this book and I am waiting for the next book (out next August).

4 Stars

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