Reading History: “The Alice Network” (Kate Quinn)

I hate to be a fangirl but, well, I’ve been a fan of Kate Quinn’s ever since I read her book Mistress of Rome way back when. I must confess, though, that I was a bit disconcerted when she announced that she would be moving from the world of ancient Rome to World War I and World War II. I just loved her books about ancient Rome so much, I wasn’t sure the magic would continue into this new outing or, more frustratingly, whether I would be able to do it. Ancient Rome was my bag; 20th Century…not so much.

Boy was I wrong.

From the very first page, right up until the last, I was absolutely hooked on this novel. There were moments of heartbreak, laughter, joy, and every emotion in between. Indeed, this novel is some of the best historical fiction from one of today’s undisputed masters of the craft. My loyalty to this author has once again been incredibly rewarded, and I have once again met fictional characters whose lives continue to live on in my brain long after I read the last page.

The novel follows two characters. One is Charlie St. Clair, an unwed and very pregnant American out to find her cousin Rose, missing since the end of WW II. Her search leads her to the door of one Eve Gardiner, a former spy in the Alice Network during World War I. The novel also follows Eve in her youth, as she overcomes her stutter to become part of the famous spy ring known as the Alice Network. In the process, she also confronts the villainous profiteer René Bordelon. As the two stories interweave, both of the characters have to confront unpleasant truths, both about themselves and about those that they love.

As a result of this back-and-forth narrative patterning, one gets a sense of the way that history repeats itself, often catching up individuals in the gears of events that they can never entirely name nor control. Both Charlie and Eve frequently find themselves falling in love with damaged men, men who for one reason or another find it difficult to reciprocate those tender feelings. And while Eve’s ultimately has more of tragedy than of romance to it, Charlie does manage to carve out a space for herself and, ultimately, for Eve as well.

In keeping with Quinn’s extraordinary ability to dive deep into the particular challenges that women faced in the past, the novel also shines a light on the double standard regarding women and their sexuality. Both Eve and Charlie have to contend with the issue of sex. Charlie, as the beginning of the novel makes clear, is an unwed mother (a particularly pernicious stigma in the postwar years), while Eve is slowly drawn into the erotic web of Bordelon, who is as sadistic as he is exquisitely cultured. He loves exacting pain and pleasure in equal measure, and he is particularly inspired by Baudelaire, whose bust he uses to inflict horrific torture.

And let’s be real here. René Bordelon is without question one of the best villains that Quinn has ever created. Of course, Quinn has always had a tremendous skill in crafting baddies that put the in in infamy, but with this collaborator she has really outdone herself. With his dedication to pleasure and the finer things in life, his suave and deadly charm, and his ruthless efficiency, he stands as the very worst that the modern world can create. While I don’t want to give too much away, suffice it to say that he gets his just desserts in the end and boy, let me tell you, it is incredibly satisfying to read it.

The novel also focuses on the way that both Wars have left tremendous scars on the men who were forced to fight in the trenches. Finn, Charlie’s love interest and Eve’s chauffeur, bears the scars of his time in the service, particularly his encounters with the freed prisoners of the concentration camps. Further, she is haunted by the specter of her brother, who committed suicide as a result of the wounds, both physical and emotional, that he sustained during his service. It is his death that drives her to continue fighting to discover the fate of her cousin Rose and, later, to do everything in her power to give Eve, who almost falls into death and despair, something to live for.

In the end, The Alice Network is a tale of the ability of women to triumph despite all of the things hurled at them by the horrors of war. There are terrible losses to be endured, sacrifices to be made, but these ultimately prove worth it by the happiness that the characters manage to grasp for themselves despite all they’ve endured. Though the experiences of women and their contributions to the grisly business of war are often glossed over (or excised entirely) from the war record, Quinn has brought them to life with a spirit and vitality that it would be hard to match. We feel like we know and love these characters, and thus we suffer and triumph right along with them.

What’s more, we also come to celebrate the unlikely and beautiful friendship that springs up between these two extraordinary women. Each finds in the other something that they lack as individuals, and it is precisely this melding of two very different spirits and temperaments that binds them and allows them both to heal from the wounds that two world wars have inflicted upon their minds, souls, and bodies. The novel is as much about the women as a team as it is about them as individuals, and that’s what gives it its particular power.

As always, Quinn has done a magnificent job bringing to light the struggles and triumphs of the forgotten women of history. I know that I, for one, cannot wait until she reveals her next work. I know that I’ll be one of the first in line to buy it when it comes out.

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Reading History: “Medicis Daughter” (by Sophie Perinot)

Warning:  Some spoilers for the plot follow.

Thanks to the great folks over at NetGalley, I recently had the chance to read Sophie Perinot’s newest historical novel, Medicis Daughter, which chronicles the life and loves of Marguerite of Valois, the daughter of Catherine de Medicis who, through an advantageous marriage, would ultimately become (for a time) Queen of France.  The novel, however, focuses mainly on the time before her fateful marriage to Henri, the King of Navarre, a noted Protestant and thus key to her family’s plans for holding France together.

At the time of the novel’s opening, Marguerite’s family has been beset again and again by tragedy, first by the untimely death of her father and then her eldest brother Francois, and her brother Charles now occupies the throne.  As a young daughter of marriageable age, Margot (her nickname) is a valuable pawn in her family’s hands, and she is soon courted by kings and princes alike, including the King of Spain (the widower of Margot’s sister) and the young King of Portugal, until she is finally married to her cousin Henri.

Marguerite is not always the easiest character to like.  While the entire novel is told from her perspective, there are times when you just want to slap her for the silly (and sometimes politically disastrous) choices that she makes, including her passionate affair with Henri, the Duc de Guise.  And yet, one can also not really blame her for some of the things she does.  Confronted with the reality that she cannot but do as she is commanded, that her life choices are constantly circumscribed by the men and women around her (particularly her brother and her mother), and even by the events that threaten to plunge all of France into continued religious chaos, she strikes out in whatever ways she can devise.

Thus, where the novel most succeeds is in showing the ways in which Marguerite resists (sometimes more effectively than at others) the whims of the people around her:  her often weak, vacillating, and vengeful brother Charles, her ardent and incestuous brother Anjou, and her terrifying mother Catherine.  Through ways both large and small, she attempts to make her own way, even when that means bringing down the wrath of her various family members upon her head.  For example, her brother Henri, overcome with his carnal desire for her, successfully turns her own mother against her.  Truly, this is a nest of serpents, and it is all Margot can do to survive.

While Marguerite is indeed the novel’s center, I would suggest that Catherine emerges as just as compelling a character as her daughter, though the novel does not paint her in a very flattering light.  And yet, if one looks beyond the surface, one can see the ways in which the novel also wants us to, indirectly at least, understand the world that could produce a woman like her.  Having scratched and clawed her way into power despite all of the obstacles in her path, it is even easy to understand why Catherine would deny her daughter those same qualities.  She more than anyone else realizes the political necessities of the world they live in, and these realities have hardened her until she sees no other way to be other than political.  Denied love and any semblance of political power by her husband, is it any wonder that she will do anything to maintain it once he is dead and her weak sons successively occupy the throne?

While the novel focuses mainly on the young Valois princess’s experiences, it does make clear the pivotal role that she played as the daughter of one of the great houses of Europe.  It is important to remember that the French Wars of Religion were some of the most tumultuous and deadly in European history, as almost everyone, from the highest monarch to the lowest peasant, had to choose which way to salvation they would take.  Marguerite thus becomes another pawn in the great games of power being waged around her, a fate that she attempts to resist even as she recognizes the limits of her own agency.

All in all, Perinot has managed to bring another historically underappreciated woman into the modern world, allowing us a glimpse into the way that her mind might have worked and how she might have encountered the world she lived in and experienced on a day to day basis.  Perinot, like other great historical novelists currently working today, allows us to see, and at least partially understood, this extraordinary Renaissance woman, and we can but hope that she will continue to chronicle the rest of Margot’s eventul life in French politics.

Score:  9/10