Friday, November 10, 2017

Historical Fiction: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

This may be my last attempt at historical fiction for 2017, and of course, it deals with World War II. Not only that, but it also deals with World War I, because it seems no matter what I do I am bound to pick up a book that has to deal with at least one of them. With Kate Quinn's The Alice Network, an unlikely trio travels through Europe searching for answers they may not be ready to find.

The Situation: It is 1947 and Charlotte "Charlie" St. Clair has just burst into the home of Eve Gardiner. All Charlie wants is answers regarding her cousin Rose, whom she has not seen for many years and fears may be lost to her forever due to WWII. She decides Eve may be a good place to start since the woman used to work at a bureau that helped locate refugees. Unfortunately for both women, Eve is as ornery and drunk as Charlie is determined and persistent. Add Scotsman Finn Kilgore as Eve's personal assistant/driver/minder, and the three of them take off on a journey that has as little chance of success as Eve does of staying sober every night. Charlie is more than willing to defy her mother if it means finding Rose. Mrs. St. Clair only wants her daughter to take care of her "little problem" (i.e. she's pregnant), return to America, and marry someone respectable. But Charlie wants more out of life, and unbeknownst to both her and Finn, Eve wants more out of their search than to simply find Rose.

The Problem: Eve has her demons, that much is clear. If she is not drunk, she is hungover and looking forward to getting drunk. And when she cannot sleep, anyone who enters her room is met with a gun leveled at their face. While Charlie searches for a cousin who may have been part of the Resistance in WWII, Eve relives her life as a spy in WWI. It may have been something she signed up to do, even something that allowed her to end up a decorated war hero, but it is also what has given her the demons she currently lives with. With lies, betrayal, and experiences that give her dreams and memories she will never forget, Eve's life as a spy has yet to let her go, even 30 years later. And when Charlie barges into her home with a name she has not heard in decades, Eve decides it is time for some closure, and also a little bit of revenge.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set both during WWI and just after WWII. Charlie searches for her cousin Rose in the year 1947, while the woman she hired relives her life in 1915, when she served as a spy against the Nazis in a small town in France. It is in Lille that Eve will end up employed as a waitress at a restaurant known to be frequented by German officials. As they enjoy the food they horde only for themselves, Eve discreetly listens to their conversation and passes useful information to her superiors, one of which being the head of the spy ring with which she is currently employed. Along with Eve, there is Lili, the head of the Alice Network, and her Lieutenant, Violette. All three women are based on real people, but the story is still fiction. There was a ring of female spies who were able to collect and pass on important information while pretending to be completely different people. In the novel, Eve pretends to be a young girl named Marguerite, and she does her best to pretend that she does not speak and understand either English or German, but only French. While living a lie for the war effort, Eve manages to make friends with her fellow spies, making what happens later that much harder to swallow. Even with moments of glorious victory, the defeats still manage to nearly destroy all three women, and turn Eve into the bitter and hateful woman she has become once Charlie finds her. But with Charlie's search, Eve seems to have a renewed purpose, even if it is focused solely on revenge.

My Verdict: As much as I gripe about wanting to stay away from books that deal with WWII (and WWI for that matter), there is a reason that I keep picking them up...I mean, there just has to be...because it just keeps happening. In the case of The Alice Network, it is probably close to the same reason I picked up both The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls. Some part of me wants to know more about what women did during that time. In The Alice Network, Quinn tells an emotional, suspenseful, often terrifying, but ultimately incredible story of one woman's experiences as a spy, and how those experiences shaped the rest of the her life. Eve and Charlie may not have made choices that someone else would make, but it was up to them how they would deal with the war, and they leaned into their choices as resolutely as they could. I often found myself eagerly turning the page while also shaking my head like I would at a modern horror film after someone suggests that the group should split up, or head upstairs, or run into the forest. The point is made several times throughout the book that war chews people up, never ends quickly, and is always happening in some part of the world, and the stories we find here are an example of how true that is, even if it is through a work of fiction.

Favorite Moment: When Charlie defies her mother for the second time and decides to finish what she has started.

Favorite Character: Eve is tough, but she is tough to a fault. She is the kind of tough and stubborn that often leads to her snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, you would rather have her on your side than against you.

Recommended Reading: I have already mentioned The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls, but Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is also worth checking out. 

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