Book: The Alice Network
Author: Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Multiple conversations between different female characters about subjects that aren’t to do with men.
Content Warnings: War, at home abortion (pre abortion being made legal), mentions of suicide, PTSD, grief, torture, physical mutilation, blood/gore, child death, gun violence, vomiting, misogyny, pregnancy, sexual assault, hospitalisation, mentions of surgery, imprisonment, stalking, mentions of Nazis and anti-semitism, alcoholism
After reading The Rose Code back in the Spring and really enjoying it, I was recommended The Alice Network by Brittany in the Goodreads Book Club that I’m in, and as spies are always something I’m interested in, particularly female spies, I was naturally excited to try it. I ended up really enjoying it and I can’t wait for Kate Quinn’s new book The Diamond Eye to come out next year. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, 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.
1947. In 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. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So 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’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.
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 hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.
As with The Rose Code, The Alice Network is narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, and she was absolutely brilliant! She’s such an engaging narrator, and she does all the different character accents so well and switches between them effortlessly. She really brings the story to life so vividly and I’ve definitely been on the look out for as many audiobooks narrated by her as I can find since reading The Rose Code!
In terms of the characters, I really loved Eve. Her story in 1915 was hands down my favourite part of the book. Eve is so funny, and brave and smart and determined, and even in 1947 when she’s been through so much and is traumatised from her experiences, has this wonderful spark that you can’t help but love her and root for her. I loved that her stammer was portrayed as a strength in her spy work rather than a weakness, and in the present day parts of the book, it was so wonderful to see an older woman in a starring role. Yes, she’s a little abrasive and rough around the edges in 1947, but to be honest, that made me love her even more!
Her mentor and boss, Lili was also a highlight of the book. Lili, a fictionalised version of the real life leader of The Alice Network, Louise De Bettignies, was so brilliant, she was so smart and sneaky and funny and just such a larger than life personality, it was impossible not to fall in love with her and her penchant for as she called it “silly hats”. I definitely came out of The Alice Network wanting to learn more about Louise de Bettignies!
On the other hand, the other main character, Charlie, I didn’t love quite as much, at least in the beginning. She was very naive, a little annoying, her dialogue felt extremely cringey and she definitely read as younger than her age of 19. However, she definitely grew a lot over the course of the book, and in the end I liked her a lot more. Her chapters were weaker than Eve’s though, especially in the beginning, they got much better towards the end when the 1947 storyline started to tie in more with the 1915 one.
Though I did have issues with the dual timeline in The Rose Code as well (actually very similar to this book, I found the past timeline more engaging than the present), I felt the two tied together very nicely. In this book however, the 1915 and 1947 storylines felt like two different stories for much of the book, they only really converged in the latter half of the book, which made it feel quite disjointed a lot of the time. One of the things I did appreciate though, was that even though we know a bit of what happened to Eve already since we first meet her in 1947, the past events still felt really suspenseful and I was still worried when things happened to her even though I knew she was going to survive and that’s definitely a testament to Quinn’s writing.
I learned so much I didn’t know before whilst reading this book, which is always a mark of a good historical fiction to me, though I studied History at Uni, there is always so much more to learn and I love it when historical fiction books teach me something new! I learned about The Alice Network, Louise De Bettignies, WWI spycraft, and the Oradour-Sur-Glane Massacre which is something I couldn’t believe wasn’t covered when we did WWII in school. Quinn clearly did her research with this book which is something I always appreciate. One quibble I did have though, and this is fairly minor, was that at one point in the book, she describes Eve hearing Belgian at the port in Folkestone, Belgian is not a language! Belgian people generally speak Dutch, French, or German and this would have been super easy to Google!
As with The Rose Code, Quinn does a super good job of handling her characters’ PTSD, particularly Eve’s and she also does a really great job at dealing with character grief, both Eve and Charlie’s pain over losing respective loved ones felt incredibly real and raw.
I really enjoyed Quinn’s writing style, aside from the occasionally cringey dialogue, she has such a vivid style and she’s particularly good at depicting the emotions of characters and scenes, I felt the emotion in the book really leapt off the page. The Oradour Sur-Glane massacre and the scene where we find out what happened to Eve in WWI that left her both physically and mentally scarred were some of the toughest to read in the whole book because Quinn paints the fear and horror and desperation in those scenes so incredibly vividly. The scene where we find out what happened to Eve in WWI that left her hands mutilated, I actually almost had to stop listening at several points in that chapter because it was so horrifying, so be warned!
Like The Rose Code, The Alice Network is also heavily focused on female friendships and I really loved that. I thought the camaraderie between Lili, Violette and Eve (the fleur du mal) in 1915 was so well done, and made it all the more heart-breaking when you see what Eve and Violette’s relationship has come to in the present day. I also really loved seeing the development of Charlie and Eve’s relationship from animosity (largely on Eve’s end) to grudging acceptance, to genuine friendship, it was really beautiful to see these two women who had both suffered trauma for different reasons, find comfort and friendship in each other and really help each other to grow. Seeing a friendship between a younger woman and a middle aged one was also really lovely as that’s not something that you often get to see.
It was perhaps a little overlong, and the pacing a little uneven, particularly in the beginning. I reckon some of Charlie’s chapters could have been trimmed a little, as a lot of them acted like filler. It didn’t help that the mystery of what happened to Rose, at least initially, is nowhere near as interesting as Eve’s spy work (any kind of mystery will struggle to compete with spying, to be honest!).
As in The Rose Code, Quinn doesn’t shy away from discussing the issues that both Eve and Charlie face living in times where women had far less rights than we do now. The fact that Charlie couldn’t access her own money without her father or husband’s permission, whilst I knew that was something that happened (and was still a law till as recently as the 1970s) made me feel just as indignant as she was! I also really loved seeing Eve taking Charlie and under her wing and teaching her techniques that she learned as a spy to move through a male dominated world as a woman, and use her gender to her advantage.
There was also the way she handled both Charlie and Eve’s unintended pregnancies. Whilst yes, this parallel was a tad cliche, I loved how Quinn handled their respective choices, when both lived in a time where they had limited options (Eve even moreso than Charlie, as Charlie at least had family with the money to send her to a legal abortion clinic). They make different choices, Eve choose to end her pregnancy and undergoes a makeshift surgical abortion with the help of Violette, a former nurse, whilst Charlie chooses to keep hers. Both choices are portrayed as valid, and the narrative doesn’t judge either woman for their choice, which I massively appreciated! I also just appreciated that Quinn included abortion in general, as it’s still a topic that I don’t see touched on much in books, though this has been improving in recent years.
Speaking of this, though obviously both Eve and Charlie face misogyny, I really appreciated that the main male characters in this, Captain Cameron in 1915, and Finn Kilgore in 1947, both really respected the women in their lives. I also appreciated that though Eve and Charlie are obviously the main characters of the story, the narrative doesn’t make all the men around them seem completely flat and one-dimensional (which can often be a problem), like Eve and Charlie, Finn and Cameron are both complex and three-dimensional characters in their own right, since just as I don’t want women to be underdeveloped in stories that centre men, I also don’t want men to be underdeveloped in stories that centre women.
The little details of being a spy, how they passed messages wrapped around hairpins or drew secret maps on the petticoats of their skirts, and the way they distracted border guards by frustrating them by emptying out the contents of their bags and taking ages to look through them, so they got so annoyed they sent them through without checking their papers, and the way Lili so effortlessly slipped in and out of different identities, were definitely a highlight of the book for me.
Rene, the main villain of the book, was truly despicable, and there’s a scene where Eve confronts him in 1947, over 30 years since the pair last saw each other, was incredibly powerful and one of my favourites of the entire book.
The disability rep with Eve felt well done, she has a stammer and a physical disability (she can’t use her hands properly due to injuries sustained in WWI) and she’s not presented as any less capable than any of the non-disabled characters in the book. However, the world in The Alice Network is still largely a white and heteronormative one, and again, it being historical fiction is no excuse for that.
The main romance was incredibly predictable, I knew from their first scene together that something would happen between Finn and Charlie. It wasn’t a problem as such, they were a sweet couple, but I didn’t think it was entirely necessary to the story, and I was more invested in other aspects of the plot than their romance. However, I did appreciate that the romance was very much background and the main narrative events were given more importance.
The ending did feel rather neatly wrapped up, and a little convenient after everything that happened in the book, but I didn’t begrudge Eve and Charlie a happy ending after everything that had happened to both of them.
Overall I really enjoyed this book! Whilst it did have its pacing issues, and the past storyline was much stronger than the present, the characters were brilliant, the female friendships were amazing and it definitely packed an emotional punch, plus the narration was so brilliantly done! I’m so excited for Quinn’s next book, The Diamond Eye to come out in March!
My Rating: 4/5
My next review will be of one of my August audiobooks, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Once again, thank you for bearing with me whilst I catch up with these reviews, I’m using my days off to chip away with them, but I still have 6 more to go, and as I want to give you the detailed reviews you have come to expect from me, they do take a while to write up, so I really do appreciate your patience!