Synopsis: Two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.
In 1947, during the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. When Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.
1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she is recruited to work as a spy. Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve has not heard in decades (Adapted from Goodreads)
Themes Explored: unplanned pregnancy, spy networks, espionage, historical fiction, World War I, the Great War, women independence, relationships, redemption, freedom, life after war, torture, depravity, evil
Review: World War I does not receive the same scrutiny as World War II. I can count on one hand the number of books I have read set during World War I, which is a shame because this time period holds some fascinating social changes. During World War I, aka “The Great War”, the governments of the world still fought wars a like they did in the mid-1800s. A lot of the modern war infrastructure of today came from innovations that occurred between World War I and World War II. Fictionally, World War II offers more opportunities due to superior documentation and significantly more analysis about the social and economic upheavals that occurred. Whenever I come across a book dealing with WWI, I get rather excited because of the rarity of fiction stories set during the 1910s. The Alice Network explores the aftermaths of both WWI and WWII through a split narrative.
In 1915 Eve Gardiner is an unremarkable young woman with an urging to do something important with her life. After catching the eye of a military espionage trainer, Eve joins the ranks of the Alice Network, a real espionage ring run by Alice Dubois in Lille, France during WWI. Eve is a determined and complex character who refuses to let others define her based upon her gender and speech impediment. Given her plain looks and stutter, Eve goes undercover in a posh restaurant during the German occupation of northeast France and must lie through her teeth to survive.
Years later, Eve drowns out her nightmares with a heady mixture of alcohol and bitterness. One day an American socialite named Charlotte “Charlie” St. Clair walks into her life, wanting help in figuringwhat happened to her cousin Rose during World War II. Eventually, the two narratives merge into one time period, but first there is a lot of Charlie’s self-pitying behavior to work through before anything exciting occurs.
Eve’s story easily overshadows Charlie’s search to find her cousin. Female secret agents sneaking around under the enemy’s nose makes Charlie’s road trip to find her cousin quite boring. The two narratives read like the author could not decide what type of story she wanted to tell: a thrilling and terrifying historical espionage adventure or an overly complicated love story with a never-ending journey across France.
In 1947 Charlie has a problem: she is a woman with intelligence. We know this because Charlie states numerous times that she knows mathematics, but the narrative never shows Charlie putting this knowledge to good use. Charlie also gets herself expelled from the upper crust Bennington College due to an unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock. Her domineering French mother hauls Charlie off to Europe to keep an appointment at a Swiss clinic that will dispose of the “Little Problem”. En route to Switzerland via France, Charlie decides to ditch her mother and track down her beloved cousin Rose instead. Rose disappeared without a trace during WWII. Like most of Europe after World War II, Rose is a refugee amid a horde of displaced persons, but Charlie is determined to find her. Because all of life boils down to a “solve for X” equation.
After blackmailing Eve into helping her, Charlie sets off on her French countryside adventure. In alternating chapters with different world wars as backdrops, we follow Eve’s exploits with “the Alice Network,” in 1915 and Charlie’s attempts to find Rose in 1947. Along the way, both women experience some character growth and wardrobe changes. Charlie sheds her 1940s “New Look” style of full skirts and petticoats for slim black slacks and a chic striped sweater. Eve learns to stop swearing at everyone. One thing that does not change is Charlie’s arrogance and immaturity. For a supposed “intelligent broad”, Charlie struggles to accept the fact that she wrecked her reputation and her father’s respect by getting pregnant out of marriage. While society was changing, respectable families still shunned pregnant unmarried women.
Charlie spends nearly the entire book bemoaning her fate in life, her “horrible” mother, the “Little Problem”, her overbearing father, and her expulsion from college. She never really accepts responsibility for her poor decision making. This gets rather exhausting to read on repeat for over 250+ pages. Given her immaturity, her romance with Finn-the dashing, 30ish, Scottish ex-con who works for Eve-seems implausible. Why would a grown man with war scars-physical and psychological- want to date a pregnant, whiny teenager?
The heart of the narrative comes from a fictionalized version of the true story of the covert Alice Network, through which fearless men and women infiltrated the German encampments in rural France. Lili, the ringleader of the Network in the novel, is based on a real woman who was called a “modern Joan of Arc.” Responsible for dozens of operatives and tons of sensitive information, Lili asserts that the Germans will never find her, as she is “a handful of water, running everywhere.” Eve finds Lili amazing and looks up to her as a mentor. This relationship between Eve and Lili is the most complex in the narrative and the least developed. Unfortunately, the author spends more time on the Charlie and Eve relationship than the Lili and Eve dynamic. Even though the Lili and Eve relationship is a much more interesting character study and the only plot point that makes the narrative engrossing.
Overall, The Alice Network presents a good depiction of the changes in society during World War I and World War II. However, the split narrative style of the book makes it hard to care for the characters as neither Eve nor Charlie have enough time to become truly three-dimensional people. The first half of the book drags a little but the action picks up in the second half. If you can make it through the first twelve chapters, the rest of the book makes up for the slow drag. If you are looking for a slightly different espionage thriller, The Alice Network is worth looking into.
The Alice Network, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2017, ISBN: 9780062654199