Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.
This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.
In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.
Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a MacGuffin. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.
The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage.
Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.
I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.
My rating: 4.5/5
Happy reading everyone!