It seems to me that a lot of writers of historical fiction are following a trend that I don’t particularly like. I recently read The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn, which was a selection for my book club for the senior citizens at the local senior housing. The book itself was good, a lot of it quite gripping, and yet even though I liked it, it followed a pattern that I’ve seen at lot in recent historical novels, and in some ways The Alice Network is a perfect example of what’s wrong with that technique.
To begin with the good stuff, part of The Alice Network tells the story of a spy ring run by women in France in World War I. No, that’s not a typo; the spy network was in the first world war and not the second, which already sets the book apart from a lot of recent historical fiction. Perhaps it’s because the last people who actually fought in that war are dying, perhaps it’s because Americans played more of a role in World War II than in World War I, but there are probably five novels about the second world war for every novel about the first. I’m all in favor of learning more about the less well-known aspects of history, and I personally think it’s a shame that Americans seem to know so little about World War I. Read this book and you will have a much better grounding in what was going on in the middle of that war.
Not only is the part of the story set in World War I interesting because it’s not the Nazis and all the tropes we’re familiar with from books and movies, it’s fascinating because most of the characters risking their lives to find out information about the German war machine and get that information to the Allies are women. Women’s roles in society were so much more restricted in the ‘teens than they were in the 1940’s that any woman who had the nerve and the skills to work as a spy in that era was really someone outstanding.
The characters in that part of the book are outstanding, especially Eve, our main character. A young woman who speaks English, German and French fluently, albeit with a stutter, Eve starts out as a file clerk, seen as boring at best and probably slightly retarded at worst, until an English officer sees her potential and recruits her to be trained as a spy. All her passion, all her intelligence, all her resourcefulness comes to the fore as she is sent to occupied France and meets the leader of the network, another wonderful character, known officially as Alice but preferring to be called Lili. Lili is bold and mercurial, a woman who’s been around the block a few times, who’s heroic and ingenious and incredibly lucky, finding ways to carry crucial information out under the very noses of the occupiers. Eve gets herself a job in a restaurant run by a collaborator, where the German soldiers tend to hang out after hours, and she begins a tightrope walk between hearing and passing on everything of importance the officers say and keeping a humble, almost stupid exterior so no one will suspect her. This act becomes more difficult when the collaborator, her boss, begins to take an interest in her as a potential mistress.
This part of the book is terrific: fast paced, tense, with high stakes and danger all around. Even knowing the big picture (who won the war, for instance) doesn’t keep you from worrying about how Lili and the rest of her network are going to survive.
If this were the whole book, I would recommend it unreservedly as an excellent historical novel, full of great characters (mostly based on real people) and a vivid sense of time and place. The problem is that that’s not the whole book.
There’s a framing story, you see, and this is the plot device I see so much in historical novels these days, and a device I’m coming to dislike. We don’t start the book with Eve and her adventures. We start with Charlotte (Charlie), a rich young American in 1947 who’s pregnant out of wedlock and going to Europe with her mother to get her Little Problem taken care of (the euphemisms are hers and her mother’s not mine, but it’s clear what they’re talking about) in a clinic in Switzerland. Unbeknownst to her mother, Charlie’s really interested in going to Europe to try to track down her cousin, Rose, who disappeared sometime during World War II, recently ended. Charlie gives her mother the slip and finds her way to a much older and embittered Eve who may have some information about what happened to Rose. Charlie gets Eve to help her search for Rose, going to Lille where Eve spent much of her time during WWI, and so we hear Eve’s story in between chapters of Charlie’s story.
The biggest problems I have with this device in general are that one of those storylines is going to be much less interesting than the other by the nature of the device, and that in some respects the device is insulting to readers.
In this case, for instance, I might have been more interested in Charlie’s story if it weren’t being juxtaposed with Eve’s much more dramatic and tense one. Charlie is a character with some depth, and her growing awareness of what she’s doing and why she’s doing it is well handled, as is her relationship with her parents and with her traveling companions. If this were the story we focused on, I wouldn’t mind reading it.
But, given Eve’s adventures, every time we move away from her imminent danger, her deprivations, the tension of whether someone in the network will be caught or not, to Charlie’s story, Charlie can’t help but lose. I found myself impatient with the Charlie chapters, eager to get back to Eve and Lili and their world.
And of course, because we see Eve in the Charlie story, decades after WWI, we know from the outset that she survives (albeit damaged; we figure out early on that she’s been tortured). While it’s good to know she’s not killed (some of the other characters aren’t so lucky), that knowledge tempers our experience of her story (the same way having a first person narration changes our sense of whether the main character’s going to survive), reducing the suspense.
Then somehow the author has to bring those two storylines together, and that’s the weakest part of this book. Without giving too much away, I have to say the use of coincidence in the climax of the Charlie story took me out of the story to consider whether this one person would really be that connected to both those stories.
The second problem I have with this technique is that it assumes that readers won’t be interested in the underlying story (Eve’s, in this case) unless we’re brought into it by someone closer to our own time. It’s as if the authors of historical fiction don’t have confidence in readers’ willingness to enter into the world of the past on its own terms. Speaking only for myself, I’m happy to jump right into the real story (Eve’s). I don’t need to have someone lead me by the hand.
So this is both a review and a reader’s rant. Yes, The Alice Network is a good read, especially in the parts set in World War I, but please, could writers of historical fiction give us a break and cut out those framing stories? Trust your sense of what the real story is, and trust your readers to jump right into that past story, and I think it’ll be better for all of us.