Augustus Whittlesby has been a spy for a very long time. He’s spent a decade in Paris posing as the world’s worst poet and sending secret information back to England hidden in hideous poems. Augustus is starting to tire of the spying game–after all he’s starting to rhyme and alliterate even in his thoughts and everyday speech–when he hears of a device that Napolean has acquired to invade England. Not knowing what the device is or really any details whatsoever, Augustus needs to infiltrate the soon-to-be Emperor’s court. Enter Emma Delgardie, American ex-pat and a close friend of Napolean’s wife and step-daughter. Since being widowed 4 years prior, Emma has spent her days floating from party to party and criticizing Augustus’s terrible poetry. Faced with the option of staying in France or returning to America, Emma agrees to write a masque for the Bonaparte’s upcoming house party in order to postpone having to make any decision at all. Augustus sees his way in and soon the two are collaborating on the most ridiculous play that France will ever see. Seriously, there’s a character named Americanus, and a pirate queen, and I don’t know what else. Of course, Augustus and Emma grow a lot closer while writing their masque which leads to all sorts of complications. Will Augustus be able to let down his long-held guard and save England? Will Emma be able to let go of her comfortable life and forgive Augustus for the fact that he’s been using her when she inevitably finds out about his true identity? Probably. This is a fluffy romance, after all. And I mean that in the best possible way.
As the ninth (!) book in the Pink Carnation series, The Garden Intrigue (Dutton 2012) could have been stale or a rehash of the older books. Luckily, Lauren Willig is able to keep things fresh by varying the locations, spy plots, and most importantly: the main couple in each novel. A boring central couple (ROBERT AND CHARLOTTE) can really drag down the whole novel, but Augustus and Emma are intriguing characters, both separately and together. They both have a world-weary, been-around-the-block thing going on that I personally find so much more interesting than a gee-whiz, puppy love type relationship. The dialogue sparks between the two characters, but also deepens as Augustus and Emma start to shed the pretenses they put up for the rest of the world. And they’re both amusing rather than mushy, which is always appreciated.
The spy plot was perhaps not quite as actiony as I prefer, but still good nonetheless. The mysterious device actually was dangerous and there were lots of eavesdropping of conversations and tension-filled coded messages. Jane and Ms. Gwen both popped up, though there wasn’t NEARLY enough of the latter. Seriously, she didn’t get to hit anyone with her parasol or blow something up once. I’m only mollified by the fact that Ms. Gwen will be the heroine of the next novel in the series. Spoiler.
And of course, I shouldn’t neglect poor Colin Selwick and Eloise Kelly. Eloise is a Harvard grad student doing archival research in England on Napoleanic era spies and Colin is the descendant of the Pink Carnation who possesses said archives. Colin and Eloise only get 6 chapters per book so they not only provide the framing device for the main narrative (it involves the characters Eloise are currently researching), but their little story usually parallels the historical plot. I think that this novel actually contains the strongest Colin and Eloise story in awhile. They haven’t been terribly interesting ever since the two started dating, but The Garden Intrigue has some good Selwick family drama as well as a classic boyfriend vs. career dilemma for Eloise. At the book signing that we attended two weeks ago, Willig revealed that she’s ending the series with the eleventh book (which I think is smart), and I could definitely see hints of Colin and Eloise’s story wrapping up. For the first time since book 3, I’m actually interested to see where these two go next.
The Garden Intrigue is another strong entry to this funny, adventurous, romantic, and clever series. If any of that interests you, start at the beginning and check out The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. You can thank us later. Or not. It’s entirely up to you.