Sadly this is the last Pink Carnation book. Happily it is also the story of the Pink Carnation. This is the twelfth book in the series that has spanned over a decade. We have watched as grad student Eloise has hunted down the story of the Pink Carnation and uncovered many other spies and tales in the process. Her hunt led her to England where she met Mrs. Arabella Selwick-Alderly, an elderly woman in possession of family letters concerning the Pink Carnation. She introduces her to her nephew, the one third owner of Selwick Hall, and the only one staying there. The two immediately get off on the wrong foot. But now, all these books later, the two are getting married. It is the day before the ceremony and Eloise is sent the Pink Carnation's chest, filled with important information by Mrs. Selwick-Alderly. As she is looking at he chest, she gets a call telling her to bring the box to Donwell Abbey (a broken down building on the estate) at midnight, or harm will come to Colin's aunt. Colin and Eloise must put their heads together and come up with a plan to try get his aunt back all before the wedding with no one finding out. (Their wedding, by the way, is one of the funniest I've read in a very long time).
The Pink Carnation story starts off in Portugal. Jane is there to meet the agent Moonflower, Jack Reid. She has two objectives: To rescue the positively insane Queen Marie and get her on a boat to Brazil with the rest of the monarchs before the French completely take over Portugal, and to try to help reunite Jack with his family. When they meet Jack does not, for a while, believe that she is the Pink Carnation, which is understandable. This is 1807 and by now the Carnation's reputation is huge and no one would believe it to be done by a woman. He's also been around long enough to know not to trust too easily. Jane, who thinks she knows his life story, does not think too much of Jack. He is the son of Colonel Reid who was stationed in India. Jack is the product of his second wife, an Indian Princess, which the law, and her family, did not recognize. She was mentally ill and he ran away to the bottle to deal with it. Neither did very well by Jack, though they tried. He told him songs and stories of Scotland and she told him tales of his royal heritage. When he was three she died tragically and they both blamed themselves. His father saw that he got the best education and Jack dreamed of working in the government. The Colonel wanted to make that happen, even though Cornwallis made sure that no Indian, or half-caste, would be allowed in the military or to hold a government job. So Jack ran off to work for the French, and various others, including the English where he got some men killed. He also stole some jewels and sent them to his little sister back in London at her boarding school. Her roommate was Jane's sister and the two had an adventure over the jewels and were lucky they didn't get hurt, as someone came after them. Jane and Miss Gwen, now Mrs. Reid, were forced to leave Paris to find her sister and were unmasked in England by the French spy, the Gardner, or the Comte de Brilliac. She could no longer work in France, which crushed her. Of course the Gardiner could no longer work in England which was a sort of victory for their side. So, in a way, she lost everything because of Jack, and he seems to her, to be loyal to no cause but his own.
Used to taking the lead, even though she does not speak the language or know the country like Jack does, which is why she needs him in the first place, she insists on dressing as a French officer with Jack as her servant, and they will travel to Porto and try to intercept whoever has the Queen and take her to a British fort, where she can stay until a ship arrives to take her to Brazil. She really should have listened to Jack when he told her that traveling with the military would take them forever to get there and that going by themselves would be faster. Not only that, but if they had gone by themselves, Jane would not have met up again with the Gardner. Right now they have a truce in place. In 1805 they worked together, and had an intimate relationship, in Venice, but once Jane saw him for what he was, she quickly left. He keeps chasing her hoping she'll marry him and go back to Paris to be a prize on his arm. The Gardiner does not fight for France. He hopes to regain the titles and lands of his "father" lost during the Revolution. While many will say the Gardner is a real bastard, the truth is he really is a bastard. His mother cuckolded the Comte, whom she had already given him two sons, and the Gardner was the result. He left the country when the troubles began and his family is all dead and he feels the whole kit and caboodle should belong to him now. Of course Jane's not the only one who knows the Gardner. Jack was ordered to kill his mentor and commander by the Gardener. When he didn't, the Gardner but out a hit on him, though he has no idea what Jack looks like. The knowledge that she had an affair with him does not inspire trust in Jack.
With the arrival of the Gardner, Jane admits she is wrong and tells Jack that they will try it his way now. So they sneak out and get a donkey and travel the rough country roads. Even though her feet are blistered and she can barely walk, Jane says nothing. It isn't her way. She is stubborn and proud and eventually Jack is forced to toss her on the donkey for worry that her blisters will get infected, which will cause more trouble for them. As they travel, they get to know one another more and find that they were both rather mistaken about the other. Of course, Jane does have a habit of changing plans at the last minute without letting him know, which she does at an Abbey they stay at that they believe the Queen may be. The clothing they are given to wear by the head of the Abbot is rather humiliating and hilarious. There are two other suspicious men staying there that they talk to at dinner, but dismiss, possibly a bit too carelessly.
Their search for the Queen will lead them back to the Gardner where Jane will have to face him alone and find a way to bring the Queen back to Jack and the Carnation "gang" who have a ship waiting. As usual, nothing is as it seems, especially where the Gardiner is involved. This is the absolute perfect book for Jane. By this point in her life she is weary and lonely. The joy she took in her work in the early years is lacking, but she knows of no other life she wants to live or one that she is more suitable for. She never expects to fall in love, even though Miss Gwen predicted it two books ago. She sees it as a weakness in doing spy work. The Gardner even accuses her of being unable to love someone, and then Jack enters her life. The recurring theme of trying to name the infernal donkey in this book is hilarious. The names they come up with once Jack stops calling it Donkey and gets into the game, are funny. At the end of this book there is a section where Willig answers questions about the series. I won't give away all of them, just one. There were many stories she wanted to tell, but didn't, and while she has said that she is done with the Carnation series, she does say never say never. There do seem to be characters she would like to revisit at a later date, maybe. I hope so, anyway, these tales she describes are quite tantalizing. Especially the Gardner's tale. I don't think he's capable of love. Now, I must go and start all over again from the beginning, since its been so long and I'm having a hard time remembering the first, I don't know, eight or nine books? This book was well worth the wait.
Note: On the day I finished reading this book it was a Saturday and I was catching up on my Jeopardy. One of the clues was the monarchy from this country fled in 1807 to Brazil when the French advanced. Talk about serendipity. I would never had known the answer (or question) if I had not just read this book). Queen Marie and her family were really quite mad, due, likely to inbreeding. She married her uncle and her son married his aunt (Marie's sister). She was known to screech and throw things a lot, but her people loved her all the same.
I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell