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Book Review: The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig

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Historical romance novels are traditionally rather formulaic. Girl meets boy. Girl falls for boy. Girl loses boy. Girl gets boy back after underlying adventure or mystery is revealed or resolved. All the while the nuances of the period are interweaved into the story, not to mention lots of down and dirty sex. Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, however, brings a refreshing new take to the historic romance novel, as evident in, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose.

The fourth book in the series (released in paperback in December), The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, continues the story involving a cast of characters established in the previous novels. The story is set in Napoleonic-era England and involves myriad high-society spies and the women who become entangled in their intricate plotting.

Mary Alsworthy is our heroine. In The Deception of the Emerald Ring, the man who is supposed to be promised to Mary ends up marrying her sister, Letty. Stuck at her new brother-in-law’s mansion with the two people who betrayed her most (not to mention a host of other members of polite society), Mary finds herself horribly depressed at the thought of yet another Season on the market and still no husband.

What’s worse is that her family cannot afford all of the trappings that are necessary for a proper young lady to attend all of the balls and events of London’s Season. Mary must rely on her newly wealthy sister to fund her efforts to land an equally lucrative match – something she doesn’t think her pride can stomach. The irony of her situation, not to mention her distaste for it, is apparent from page one.

Mary is determined to find her own way, which is why she takes the mysterious Lord Vaughn up on his offer. He approaches Mary on behalf of the British spy The Pink Carnation with a proposition: help him unmask the notorious French spy The Black Tulip and be richly rewarded. More intrigued by the money he is offering than anything else, Mary sees Vaughn’s offer as something that could be a somewhat exciting diversion from her present situation. If only it didn’t have to include so much time with Vaughn himself.

Arrogant, cold, acerbic, and at times disconcertingly seductive, Vaughn works on Mary’s last nerve at every meeting. But she is up to the challenge and meets him jab for jab. The two grow closer as they have to increase the number of their public appearances together in hopes of catching the Black Tulip’s eye. They’re banking on the spy’s penchant for dark-haired beauties (of which Mary is an excellent specimen) to lure him into their trap.

What they didn’t anticipate was the growing attraction between Vaughn, who has sworn off marriage forever, and Mary, who has been clear from the first that she is only looking for a wealthy husband. You can guess where the story goes from there.

What’s really interesting about The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, and all of The Pink Carnation books, is how they are told. Through alternating chapters, Willig shifts perspective between the events taking place in Napoleonic London and those happening in modern-day London with Eloise Kelly, an American PhD student who is researching these spies for her dissertation.

On her path to discovering who The Pink Carnation and The Black Tulip really are, Kelly becomes involved with the Selwick family, who are descendants of one of the spies in this twisty tale. The ongoing flirtation between Kelly and Colin Selwick comes to a head in this installation of the series, and an additional, somewhat nefarious, character is thrown into the mix.

Writing one story of intrigue and romance is hard enough; writing two that intertwine is certainly a feat. I’m undecided as to whether it works for the book, though. It took me a little while to figure out what was going on with the change in perspectives. I knew the story was a historical romance, so when I started reading and found myself in the head of a 21st century woman, I was kind of put off. Then the heart of the story began and it became more clear what the author was doing.

Still, when those present-day chapters came in and interrupted the main story, I was tempted to skip them – and found I couldn’t! I didn’t want to miss anything important, and as Kelly’s story went on, some bits of mystery caught my interest as well. The combination of past and present, however, made the story drag a bit.

What also makes The Seduction of the Crimson Rose unlike other novels in the genre is the language. Willig has an immense vocabulary and uses it well in this novel. Most genre fiction is written more simply, whereas Willig’s is eloquently and sophisticatedly penned, which adds a more intellectual element to the book.

If sexual tension is your thing, then this book would be great for you. All of the romantic play that is presented is in stolen kisses, near misses, innuendo and the like. This, too, is a nice change from the seduce-and-conquer types of novels so often seen in the genre. Willig relies on subtlety to make her point, and does it beautifully at that.

Overall, I liked The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. I was a little lost because I hadn’t read the other books in the series and was dissatisfied with the pace of the book. Still, I may go back and pick up the preceding books to get the backstory on some of the characters.

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About Robin Kavanagh