Lauren Willig-The Lure of the Moonflower

Themes Explored: ostracism, belonging, sense of self, historical fiction, romance, mystery, espionage, modern romance, British aristocracy, Napoleonic Wars, caste system, familial relations, marriage, independence, perception, self-reliance, perseverance

Synopsis: Portugal, December 1807. Jack Reid, the British agent known as the Moonflower (formerly the French agent known as the Moonflower), has been stationed in Portugal and is awaiting his new contact. He does not expect to be paired with a woman—especially not the legendary Pink Carnation.
 
All of Portugal believes that the royal family departed for Brazil just before the French troops marched into Lisbon. Only the English government knows that mad seventy-three-year-old Queen Maria was spirited away by a group of loyalists determined to rally a resistance. But as the French garrison scours the countryside, it’s only a matter of time before she’s found and taken.
 
It’s up to Jane to find her first and ensure her safety. But she has no knowledge of Portugal or the language. Though she is loath to admit it, she needs the Moonflower. (From Goodreads)

Lure

Review: Lauren Willig burst onto the light historical romance scene in 2005 with the publication of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Following in the veins of Emma Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, Willig’s series explores the espionage tendencies of British aristocrats during the Napoleonic Wars. This is interspersed with a modern narrative about a PhD candidate at Harvard University who is doing research on undercover British spies. Eloise Kelly ends up traveling to England in order to jump start her research and meets Colin Selwick, the dashing modern descendant of the Pink Carnation. Romantic hijinks ensue. Each book explores a different British spy involved with the Pink Carnation and continues the story of Eloise and Colin. This leads up to The Lure of the Moonflower, the twelfth and last book in The Pink Carnation Series. Willig ties up all her loose ends and allows Jane Wooliston, the Pink Carnation, to meet her intellectual and romantic match. A nice and tidy way to end the series.

In book eleven, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, Eloise and Colin become engaged. Book twelve opens with the wedding planning. Naturally there is a mystery subplot at the eleventh hour before the wedding. The wedding is not a surprise, the entire series has been building towards a happy ending. But it is a satisfying end to the rollercoaster that has been Eloise and Colin’s relationship. Their modern romance was a nice foil to the highly regimented regency romances detailed in the historical sections of the series. As with the last eleven books, the narrative is built upon superbly research historical facts and details. And it is full of Willig’s signature witty repartee and comedy. While I am sad to say adieu to Willig’s cast of characters, it was time for the Pink Carnation Series to come to a close. Over the course of the series, Willig went from novice to seasoned writer. Each book had stronger character development and better conceived plots. But they did start to feel formulaic after the eighth installment.  

The historical side of The Lure of the Moonflower is set in Portugal in 1807. The French are invading Lisbon and the Queen of Portugal has fled to Brazil. Or has she? Only a handful of people know the true location of the mad Queen of Portugal. And Jane Wooliston needs to find the Queen before the French. There is only one problem: she does not know Portugal or how to speak Portuguese. Enter Jack Reid, also known as the Moonflower, a French spy who switched allegiance to the English. He is Jane’s only resource, besides her intellect, to traversing the politics and geography of Portugal. However, Jack has a tendency to go rogue and work for the highest bidder. Can Jane put her trust in such a shadowy person? Hijinks ensue. Meanwhile, Eloise and Colin are trying to plan a wedding amidst exploding family politics. And then a mystery arises that might delay the wedding. Have no fear though, the Harvard graduate student and novice spy novelist are on the case.

Jane and Jack are an interesting pair. Both of them have dedicated their lives to espionage and try to stay alive while infiltrating contnsly shifting political regimes. They have a lot in common besides being chased by the dangerous spy The Gardener. Of course a floral themed spy series will feature a super villainous spy named The Gardener, who else would be equipped to snip the stems of wayward flowers. Regardless, both Jane and Jack have lost a lot during their espionage escapades. The Wooliston’s have disowned their oldest daughter and pretend that she never existed. Jack cast himself out of his own family, he is a self-identified black sheep and suffers from a case of martyr syndrome.  

Naturally Jane finds Jack an intoxicating puzzle and has a hard time maintain her cool around him. This is the British’s greatest super spy and she is utterly at a loss when it comes to dealing with the ruggedly handsome Moonflower. As usual, Jack is hardheaded and learned that loving someone means putting your heart at risk. And in his line of work, anyone he loves is a liability to his safety. So he decided to never let his heart get in the way. That is until he meets his match in the formidable Jane and decides that she is worth the sacrifice. Of course it takes most of the narrative before the two hardhearted and independent heroes decide that they need each other. This is not surprising since it is the formula Willig has followed since book one. But she adds in just enough wit to make it seem fresh. Word of advice though, do not read more than two of the books in a row. Allow about a week in between each book or else the formula will become overwhelmingly apparent.

Of course one glaring detail prevented me from fully enjoying the book. Jane and Jack are trying to walk around Portugal undetected yet speak English while in close proximity to both French and Portuguese nationals. At several points they pretend to be British and at other times try to pass as natives. Yet they hardly ever stop speaking English, sometimes quote loudly. This comes across as slightly unbelievable given Jane and Jack’s obsessive attention to detail. Also, Miss Gwen did not have enough “screen time”. She is probably my favorite character in the whole series. Jane might be The Pink Carnation but she is a rather bland character. All of her alter egos are well developed femme fatales or simpering misses no one pays attention too. However, her actual personality is rather underdeveloped and forgettable. Jack Reid, son of Colonel William Reid, is conflicted and unable to find his place in the world. He is half Indian and half British and, hence, is cast out by both cultures. This manifests in him being angry at everyone and unwilling to contact his estranged family. As a character, Jack is a lot like the other male heroes in the series. Handsome, intelligent, a lone wolf, willfully cagey, and secretly longing for a female companion. Personally, I found The Gardener to be a more engaging male lead. He had several more compelling layers but was sacrificed for plot. In the end, he became little more than a caricature.

Eloise and Colin are a compelling couple. But their narrative in this book was hindered by the split storytelling. I really wish they had a standalone novel but will take what is offered. Willig tried to cram a little too much into their storyline. A wedding and a mystery? Given the scarcity of chapters dedicated to them, this was just too much. And it veered into the absurd towards the end. Though I loved the part with Mrs Selwick-Alderly. However, I was satisfied with the ending. All in all, The Lure of the Moonflower was the perfect conclusion to The Pink Carnation Series. It is lighthearted, flirty, and an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Willig has a witty sense of humor and clearly had a lot of fun writing the series. She also never takes herself overly seriously. Her books are clean historical romances and, despite some quibbles, some of the best entries in the genre.

The Lure of the Moonflower, NAL, 2015, ISBN 9780451473028

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