Colonel William Reid has returned home from India to retire near his children, who are safely stowed in an academy in Bath. Upon his return to the Isles, however, he finds that one of his daughters has vanished, along with one of her classmates.
Having served as second-in-command to the Pink Carnation, one of England’s most intrepid spies, it would be impossible for Gwendolyn Meadows to give up the intrigue of Paris for a quiet life in the English countryside—especially when she’s just overheard news of an alliance forming between Napoleon and an Ottoman Sultan. But, when the Pink Carnation’s little sister goes missing from her English boarding school, Gwen reluctantly returns home to investigate the girl’s disappearance.
Thrown together by circumstance, Gwen and William must cooperate to track down the young ladies before others with nefarious intent get their hands on them. But Gwen’s partnership with quick-tongued, roguish William may prove to be even more of an adventure for her than finding the lost girls…
I absolutely loved this book. I’m woefully behind on the Pink Carnation series, but I jumped at the chance to review this one, not least because it has rather a USP (Unique Selling Point) in the genre – namely that the hero and heroine are of more mature years (he’s fifty-four, she’s forty-five). That certainly wasn’t the only reason, however. Ms. Willig’s writing is intelligent and frequently humorous, her characters leap off the page and she spins a superb yarn.
For anyone not familiar with the series, most of the Pink Carnation novels follow a similar format : the modern-day story of American grad-student, Eloise Kelly, and her research into the network of nineteenth century British spies under the direction of the Pink Carnation, runs alongside the (fictional) historical events that make up the bulk of the narrative.
I can’t deny that the format has its frustrations. I’d get to a point in the story set in 1805 where I was desperate to find out what happens next – and suddenly it was 2004 and I had to take a quick break from the characters I was coming to love in order to catch up with what was going on in “the other” story. Fortunately, however, Ms. Willig never makes her readers wait too long to get back to the action.
In 2004, Eloise is moping about the fact that she will be returning to the US in two months. This is what she’s long planned to do, except that she’s now in a long-term relationship with Colin Selwick, a descendant of the families she has been researching. They are living at Selwick House in Sussex and Eloise’s research into the exploits of the Pink Carnation has stalled as she seems suddenly to have vanished from the face of the earth. There is no correspondence, there are no mentions of her in documents; so Eloise becomes sidetracked by the search for the Jewels of Berar, known to have disappeared during Wellington’s wars in India, and rumored to have been hidden at Selwick.
In 1805, the Pink Carnation – otherwise known as Miss Jane Wooliston – receives the news that her sister, Agnes, has disappeared from school in the company of a schoolmate, one Lizzie Reid. Jane and her companion, Miss Gwen Meadows, a formidably sharp-tongued spinster, are living in Paris from where Jane runs her network of agents. Gwen has appeared in a many of the previous books and has a fearsome reputation for speaking her mind and not caring what anybody thinks of her. She’s prickly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, yet she cares deeply for Jane and is committed to their cause of messing with Napoleon as often as possible.
Jane believes it possible that Agnes may have been kidnapped by someone with a desire to neutralize the Pink Carnation, so she and Gwen return to England to discover what they can and try to find the girls.
Also recently arrived in England is Colonel William Reid, late of the East India Company and Lizzie’s father. He has no idea that his daughter has gone missing until he arrives at her school in Bath. He is distraught and guilt-stricken – he hasn’t seen Lizzie for ten years, when he set her and her older sister, Kat, on the boat to England in order to protect them from harm in India – and he feels terrible that he has let so many years pass before seeking her out. Despite his seeming neglect, however, William loves his children dearly. Believing his daughters to be safe and secure in England, he remained in India for longer than he had intended, making do with the infrequent correspondence that was all there was to be had between England and India at the time. It doesn’t speak especially well of him, it’s true, and yet he is not a man to be anything other than brutally honest with himself once he realizes he has failed in his duty towards them, and I doubt that anyone could have blamed him to any greater degree than he blamed himself for their respective situations.
While Gwen doesn’t take to William at first, it’s easy to see that it’s not because she actually dislikes him. Far from it. She’s unsettled by him – he doesn’t react to her by scurrying away with his tail between his legs as do so many men who have been on the receiving end of her scorn, but more than that, he pays attention toher rather than just suffering her company as the unfortunate consequence of wanting to associate with the beautiful Jane.
Grudgingly, Gwen agrees that they should work together in order to find the girls, and they depart Bath for Bristol, to see what they can find out about their disappearance. It gradually becomes clear that there is more to this than the abduction that Jane had feared, and I think that this is where the modern-day story of the search for the Jewels of Berar worked best. By keeping the jewels to the forefront of the reader’s mind every few chapters, Ms. Willig was able to hint at their importance without overshadowing the story of the search for the missing girls, the potential threats to Jane at the hands of the mysterious French spymaster “The Gardener,” and the romance that was developing between William and Gwen.
The sparks fly between them from the moment they meet, although Gwen tries to keep her distance with coolness and hauteur. But all the while, William is gradually wearing down her resistance, proving himself to be courageous and honorable as well as to have a wonderful sense of humor and no small degree of charm.
Their relationship was the absolute star-turn of the book and shows that it is perfectly possible to craft a truly charming and engaging romance from a more mature standpoint. Both protagonists bring a trolley-load of emotional baggage with them, but theirs is a story about second chances, and very well deserved they are. Gwen’s back-story is particularly heart wrenching, but goes a long way toward explaining how and why this vital and intelligent woman became a waspish old-maid, her true self hidden beneath a veneer of testiness. There’s one point towards the end of the book when William is watching Gwen with her friends and family at dinner, which I thought was wonderfully observed:
It was as though she had retreated into a plaster mold of herself, all the life, all the animation that had so captivated him, buried beneath a cold and brittle shell. That tremendous zest he had seen again and again diverted itself into haughty comments and cutting asides. And no one, 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.
To anyone having difficulty imagining a romantic hero is in his fifties – is there anyone out there who can deny the obvious attractions of, say, George Clooney or Robert Downey Jr.? William Reid is not only a very handsome man, he’s a terribly attractive character, too – determined and strong but with a sweetness and vulnerability about him which only serve to increase his appeal. He’s far from perfect; he’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his daughters and about the state of his relationships with his three sons, but as Gwen realizes, she’s never met anyone who cares so deeply for others.
The romance between Gwen and William is just one thread in a multi-faceted story which also features hints of a romantic relationship between Jane and her archenemy as well as the hunt for the jewels and the deepening emotions between Colin and Eloise in 2004. I thought it was a nicely humorous touch for each chapter to begin with a quote from Miss Gwen’s oft-mentioned gothic novel, The Convent of Orsino which eagle-eyed readers will recognize as a spoof of such stories as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto (and which, indeed Ms. Willig acknowledges as her inspirations in her author’s note). Each of the excerpts mirrors the action of the story, as the heroine, Plumeria and her companion, Sir Magnifico, seek to discover the whereabouts of his daughter, the lovely Amarantha.
I was thoroughly caught up in the story of Gwen and her William and didn’t want it to end, even though I wanted them to get their HEA. I know there are a couple more books to come in this wonderful series, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we’re going to see of this pair.