The Alice Network
It doesn’t take much to sell me on a World War-era novel (throw in spies and socialites and I am there). That said, I tried to come at this novel with an unbiased perspective. Spoiler alert: It still tops the charts.
Best-selling author Kate Quinn (The Empress of Rome Saga, The Borgia Chronicles) has turned her impressive talent with historical fiction towards the world of spies and intrigue in her latest novel, The Alice Network. The Alice Network, historically-speaking, was a far-reaching, intricate spy network made up almost entirely of women during the First World War. Pretty cool, huh?
This particular novel spans two world wars, two women, and one mystery that haunts and connects them both. When American socialite Charlie St. Clair runs away to find her cousin who went missing during World War II, her lead takes her to the doorstep of Eve Gardiner, ex-British spy and current crank. Together they head to France to reconcile their pasts and make peace with their futures.
The book jumps back and forth in time, with one chapter being set in 1915, where we get a younger Eve’s perspective, and the next in 1947, focusing on Charlie’s story. This engaging form of storytelling not only kept me turning the pages and biting my nails in suspense, but it also revealed some wonderful parallels between two women who, on the surface, couldn’t be more different. Besides the divisions in nation, class, and even personality, they share dogged determination, plucky resourcefulness, hopes and losses, and the terrible feeling of being haunted by loved ones they couldn’t save, in spite of their best efforts.
Which leads me to my one bone to pick with this story. Both Eve and Charlie have the understandable and common human habit of blaming themselves (either directly or indirectly) for the terrible things that have happened to those they love, either during the war or soon after. The result is a lot of self-flagellation and the mistaken belief that they can “save” others around them.
Now, I see how that is an important motivation for the characters, but I would personally have liked to see them come to some sort of realization that taking on the massive role of savior isn’t something that we can feasibly do. Believe me, I’ve tried. Like my mother before me, I am a problem solver. When I see something wrong, my first question is how do I fix this? But more often than not, I can’t. Not on my own. Either because the problem is bigger than me or because it’s a personal problem that the friend involved needs to solve on their own. Sometimes I can only offer moral support or a shoulder to cry on. Eve and Charlie did all of those things, but nothing they did could erase the events of the past and they only marginally received some form of catharsis. That said, the story did give an ultimately satisfying ending, so I, as the reader, received my catharsis.
Besides all the feels, I was also tremendously inspired. Quinn spent a lot of time researching the women behind the real Alice Network. That particular spy ring (led by the incredible and resourceful Louise de Bettignies) was one of the most effective and vast networks in World War I. It was her indomitable spirit that stuck with me after I turned the final page. As the notorious Queen of Spies, her steady presence was constant in the novel, and the endearing fictional characters of Eve and Charlie only served to flesh out the courageous fleet of women that used every ounce of cleverness at their disposal to outwit their German oppressors and fight for their people.
And in case you’re thinking the German army’s occupation was just some form of nation-wide house arrest, think again. Quinn does an excellent job of detailing how difficult life was, from random house searches to village massacres, let alone the starvation and general deprivation the people faced as the army raped, pillaged, and plundered in the name of their nation. And France was occupied twice. We don’t give them nearly enough credit for their courage! Vive la France!
I’ve always loved reading about Resistance fighters and spy networks, any place that women were able to fight from their homefront during this period. I know that the freedoms I enjoy are a direct result of their sacrifices, and I wonder if I’d have been brave enough to do the same had I lived then. And as I claim home in both America and England (though mainly England, let’s be real), I can’t help but cherish a deep respect for my predecessors, whose histories are deeply woven into the fabric of both nations. After The Alice Network, I feel that I have a greater understanding of what they lived through, and I feel personally indebted to the lionesses that went before us all to shape the world as we know it today.