The Orchid Affair

Here's the thing. If you're at the point where you're reading the SEVENTH of a series in HARDCOVER, you don't really need my review. You're like me; you're going to read it regardless of what the main storyline might be. We've come this far and we've been amused enough with the ride, so we'll continue on.

The Orchid Affair is, indeed, the seventh book in the Pink Carnation series (a count which doesn't include the Christmas intrigue published a few months ago or that little online novella) published by Lauren Willig -- historical romance novelist who found her way to full time writing only after going to Harvard Law (something tells me that when they talk about the many things you can do with your law degree, this might not have been what they had in mind). Willig has certainly published a great deal since The Secret History of the Pink Carnation appeared in 2005, so thank goodness she seems to know exactly what her readers want. The series is loosely gathered around the doings of the Pink Carnation, an English spy, but the Pink Carnation herself is a somewhat elusive character -- only peeking in occasionally while each book focuses on the love lives of two other individuals. Most of the pairs of lovers in question are English, regardless of the country that provides our setting, but The Orchid Affair is unique; rather than featuring Englishfolk running about France while sporting flowery spy names, this installment features a Frenchwoman returning home after spending years in England as a governess... so she can sport a flowery spy name and be planted in the home of a French official. Much less Englishness. And running. At least in the first half. In the end, what she (and her super secret spy boss The Pink Carnation) doesn't quite count on is that the French official in question might not be totally on board with the current government's practices either, which would make them surprising allies in the need to smuggle a French claimant to the throne out of France.

Willig readers know the basic idea of what they'll be getting here. Some ridiculous fun and an eventual happy ending, preferably with a sexy scene or two tossed in... or at least some nice romantic angst. And when the obvious set up is between a secret spy governess and the employer she's spying on, well, there you have it. Laura Grey is, indeed, a governess, so posing as a governess isn't a terribly difficult role for her. Her parents were artists (her mother a poet of some note and her father a well-known sculptor) and while they had many friends in life, when they died in a boating accident, Laura made her own way in life. Now, the thrill of serving as a spy (and having gone through the Selwick Spy School) is a bit muted by the daily duties of teaching children, so thankfully the story does eventually veer off into something much more amusing -- a traveling troupe of actors. Andre Jaouen is her employer, the right-hand man (and cousin by marriage) to the Chief of Police. It's not surprising, therefore, that the Pink Carnation might want someone in his employ to glean any useful bits of information... what Laura eventually discovers, however, is that Andre is assisting the Royalist cause, having grown jaded with what the Revolution has led to. As a result, we get a fresher look at all the post-Revolution politics in France, which provides a welcome perspective in a series where naturally one must worry about the whole "those Frenchies seek him everywhere" storyline could get tired.

On the modern end of things (as each novel does tie together with the modern graduate student Eloise and her blossoming romance with the many-time-great-grandson of one of these flowery spies), we actually are seeing some drama stir up that goes beyond Eloise and Colin. I was a tad disappointed that we get no new information about exactly what Colin might be up to (is he really writing a spy novel or is he, perhaps, taking up the family business of spying?), but we do get a bit of drama as it concerns his family's estate and his mother's husband (who was her husband's nephew... ew) making a bit of a power play in his desire to be head of the family and trump Colin. The trouble here is that we get so little time with this cast that I always find myself wishing for more and not in the good sense, strictly speaking. Certainly it's interesting, but it does feel like we're rather eking along there.

I enjoy Willig's novels because she clearly has fun with the story -- which means that the reader is more likely to have fun reading it. She creates likable characters (often of the bumbling variety) and they get up to ridiculous antics -- and The Orchid Affair one was about par for the course (though it takes a little while to get to the ridiculous antics, as Paris is far too grim and serious for such things, evidently). Sadly, we're getting to the point where Willig has paired off so many people, it seems almost absurd when you come across them... a whole group of perfectly matched couples in charge of espionage operations across the Channel. But I chuckled and read the book in a weekend, so clearly it was all still amusing enough. It wasn't my favorite of her novels by any means -- the best one in the recent past was The Betrayal of the Blood Lily. It was good to get back to the actual center of the series (aka the French Revolution), though, and the French perspective was a nice angle. The Mischief of the Mistletoe introduced a whole crop of younger sisters, so clearly Willig has ample future heroines tucked away, so I'll keep on reading. Reading a Lauren Willig novel is an exceedingly pleasant way to pass a winter's afternoon/evening. Just keep the tea warm and the scones at the ready.

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