I spent the last couple of weeks down the rabbit hole, head buried in The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. The story captured me from the very beginning—no need to read to page 90 with this one; I was hooked by page two!
Nineteen forty-seven was hell for little bony girls like me who couldn't wear the New Look. Then again, 1947 was hell for any girl who would rather work calculus problems than read Vogue, any girl who would rather listen to Edith Piaf than Artie Shaw, and any girl with an empty ring finger but a rounding belly.
It was a surprising, rabbit-warren of a novel, following the interconnected paths of two very different women, and spanning both world wars. One path is the story of Charlie St Clair, the little bony girl with the rounding belly, on her way to an Appointment to deal with her Little Problem. The other is the story of Eve Gardiner, a stuttering half-French girl plucked from her life as a file girl in an English law office and dropped into the spy network in France during World War I. It's also the story of their two quests—Charlie's search for her French cousin Rose, missing since 1944, and Eve's quest for retribution and for peace.
And, it's the story of Louise de Bettignies, code named Alice Dubois, queen of spies.
Have you heard of her? If you have, you're doing better than me! Before reading this fascinating novel, I knew nothing about women spies in WWI apart from some vague recollections about Mata Hari. I was surprised when I realised that I was reading about a woman who had truly risked her life providing the allies with information. I mean, I'm not completely ignorant about the world wars. I studied Gallipoli in History and War Poetry in English, not to mention a having a fair few novels set during the wars on my Completed Shelf. But Louise de Bettingnies was a stranger to me. It's a shame she isn't better known, as Kate Quinn says of her in the authors note:
The courage, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of the woman christened the queen of spies needs no exaggeration to make for thrilling reading.
Not only was Louise a real person, so too were several other characters, and many of the events in the story are based on historical events. I didn't realise this while I was reading, so this realisation, at the end, made the book even more enjoyable.
This book is, by turns, exciting, harrowing, poignant, a little romantic, and quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Charlie, after being refused access to her own bank account because she's lacking a man, decides to pawn her grandmothers pearls, and Eve surprises her by pretending to be the said grandmother and browbeating the pawnbroker into giving Charlie a decent price. I'm definitely going to be adding Kate Quinn to my list of must-read authors, and I hope you do too!
The Alice Network
by Kate Quinn
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand