Book: The Rose Code
Author: Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Mab, Osla and Beth have multiple conversations that don’t revolve around men.
Content Warnings: Death, bombing depictions, parental abuse, patient abuse, incidence of using a straightjacket, vomiting, sexual assault, blood, description of lobotomies, alcoholism, infidelity, PTSD, racial slurs, sexist slurs, grief depictions, war themes, forced institutionalisation
I actually came across The Rose Code by chance, I was scrolling through Instagram and shown an ad for it, it sounded interesting and so I decided to check out the audiobook! Never say targeted ads don’t work eh? Anyway, it’s no secret that I love women’s history, so naturally, a story about female codebreakers in WWII was always going to be right up my alley. I ended up really enjoying it, particularly the narration and have gone on to read another of Kate Quinn’s books, The Alice Network since. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything – beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses – but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.
1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter – the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger – and their true enemy – closer. .
I have start with the thing I loved most about this book: the narration. Saskia Maarleveld was incredible, I think the best audiobook narrator I’ve listened to. She does the whole audiobook in an accent that isn’t her own, which is impressive enough anyway but then she does multiple different accents for all the different characters as well, and slips into and out of them so easily. She really made the book such an excellent listening experience, and one of the reasons I was so excited to read The Alice Network is because I saw she was the narrator.
I also really loved how much this book centred female friendships, as I’m sure you know if you’ve followed me for a while, female friendships are like catnip to me. Anyway, I loved how supportive Osla, Mab and Beth were of each other and the way that they formed their own little family. Even though I knew the moment that their friendship fell apart was coming (not a spoiler, it’s in the synopsis), I was so devastated when that moment came because I had become so invested in their friendship as Quinn had developed it so well.
Beth’s character development was a highlight of this book for me. At the start of the book, she’s 24 and under the thumb of her emotionally and physically abusive mother. As a result, she’s painfully shy and withdrawn, to the point of barely being able to speak to people and has very low self-esteem. It was so wonderful to see her come into her own over the course of the story, gaining confidence through her work as a cryptanalyst and eventually being able to stand up to her abusive mother. Of the three characters, I felt like she grew the most over the course of the story.
I also really loved Osla, I think she was my favourite of the three girls (Beth being a close second). She’s smart, determined, desperate to prove herself and not be overlooked as a “silly deb” & she’s the most fun of the three. I also thought her trauma was really well handled, she experiences a bombing fairly early on in the war and it really colours her experiences afterward, it’s not just brushed under the carpet. The way she used humour as a way of dealing with her trauma really rang true, and her loneliness and longing for a family really made me feel her.
Mab on the other hand, kind of rubbed me up the wrong way. There were certain things I did like about her, I liked how feisty she was and how determined she was to forge her own path in life but I didn’t love how judgemental she was of other women. In the beginning, she’s incredibly judgemental of Beth, referring to her as “weak” and “spineless” and I thought this was really unfair given that Beth has been emotionally and physically abused by her mother for years. She’s also fairly unreasonable to Osla following the incident that breaks up their friendship, and whilst it is somewhat understandable given her state at the time, Osla had also been through a lot of trauma and it seemed like she was trying to be supportive of Mab’s trauma, but Mab gave no thought to hers. Having said that, I did appreciate that Quinn allowed her female characters to be flawed: Mab is judgemental, Beth is so hyper focused on work to the extent of ignoring other people’s feelings and what is happening in their lives and Osla constantly referring to not wanting be considered a “silly deb” could be annoying.
The dual timeline was generally done well: they tied together nicely, but I definitely found the past timeline more engaging and better paced than the present: the present was a lot of Osla and Mab griping at each other which wasn’t the most fun to read.
Speaking of the pacing, this book is a little long and could probably have been trimmed down a little, it definitely took a while for things to build up. Having said that, the narration was so engaging that it didn’t really matter, I still wanted to keep listening, even when the plot was lagging a little. The chapters were also nice and short, which kept things ticking over nicely.
All the codebreaking stuff was really interesting and I learned a lot that I didn’t previously know by the end of this book-for instance, I had no idea that the Duchess of Cambridge’s grandmother was a codebreaker at Bletchley!
I wasn’t massively enamoured with the romance plots. I didn’t find Mab and Francis’ relationship particularly interesting, they didn’t seem to have much chemistry and I found Francis kind of dull so I wasn’t massively convinced when she was suddenly in love with him. Osla and Philip definitely had more chemistry, but I found it slightly odd reading about them since Prince Philip was a real person and died not long before I started reading the book. You also know from the start that it’s going to end: though I will say Quinn did a great job of making the inevitable still seem heartbreaking. Beth and fellow codebreaker Harry Zab actually had the most convincing connection as they had a lot in common, but he was married, so I couldn’t really invest in their relationship as I really hate cheating.
I really loved that this book made a big deal of talking about contraceptives, not many contemporary books do, so it was really great to see it in a historical one.
Quinn’s writing style was really great, she creates a wonderful atmosphere throughout and the sense of suspense heading up to D-Day was really well done. You get a very vivid picture of the inner workings of Bletchley Park and she captures the sense of camaraderie but intense secrecy very well.
Obviously being a war book there are some very devastating parts, and whilst I don’t want to go into too many details about the specifics in order to avoid spoilers, Chapters 43-46 are particularly heartrending. Quinn handles character grief exceptionally well.
It’s not the most diverse cast, all of the main characters are white & the one important non-white character suffers much racial abuse. Being a WWII book isn’t an excuse for lack of diversity, plenty of POC were involved in the Allied War effort and it would have been nice to see more of that here. It’s also very heteronormative, and the only non able-bodied character is the son of Beth’s love interest, who has leg braces after suffering from polio.
The scene where Osla and Mab first meet is probably one of my favourites of the entire book: the way Osla embarrasses the man who was masturbating on the train was priceless!
Quinn has clearly done her research in terms of the real life operations, bombing raids, the way that cryptography worked, the day to day life of Bletchley Park, all of this detail really enhanced the story. Being a history graduate, I love it when I read historical fiction and it’s clear that author has properly researched the time period! She also managed to integrate the historical cameos very well, in a way that felt natural to the story.
Some of the 1940s slang felt a little cringey and there were some overused phrases like “silly deb”, but generally the dialogue was really good.
I liked that Quinn wasn’t afraid to confront some of the harsh realities of 1940s Britain, like the treatment of patients in asylums, and the sexism that the three girls faced in their work, especially Osla who is constantly looked down on for being traditionally feminine and a society girl, and is even suspected of being a traitor just because of who she is dating. I found the asylum parts of the book particularly harrowing to read, Beth’s experience there sounded truly horrendous.
Being a mystery book, there are naturally quite a few twists along the way, the main one being this traitor from Bletchley Park and I have to admit, I had the completely wrong end of the stick for a long time on that one. There were also a couple of other mysteries from the past that I didn’t work out, even though in hindsight they probably should have been super obvious.
I loved Beth and Dilly’s mentor/mentee relationship, I thought that was really heartwarming, and I enjoyed the little nods to Alice in Wonderland throughout the book (the characters’ book club being called “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the asylum parts being referred to as into the clock, several allusions to codebreaking being like “going down the rabbit hole” etc).
Also I feel I should mention: there is a dog in this, the DOG IS FINE. The dog survives, I promise.
I did feel like the end was almost a little too neat? Don’t get me wrong, the characters definitely deserved a happy ending after everything they went through and I found it quite heartwarming, but everything was resolved just a bit too easily for me and we didn’t get to see any of the fallout from the events that happened towards the end of the book. It would have felt a bit more earned I think if more development had gone into rebuilding the girls’ relationship and if everything hadn’t been resolved so quickly: I think the conclusion could have actually done with a bit more space, which is strange to say for such a long book!
Overall I really enjoyed this book. The narration was fabulous, I loved the female friendship at the heart of the story, I enjoyed the characters and the setting, and whilst it could have been a little pacier in places, I found myself engaged the whole way through. Plus it made me seek out another of Quinn’s books, which is always a mark of success!
My Rating: 4/5
My next review will be of The Unbound by Victoria Schwab, I know I said that would be my next one last time, but I do these in the order I finish them, and I finished The Rose Code before The Unbound. Please bear with me as I catch up on reviews, I’ve been busy with work over the past few weeks and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write reviews for my most recent reads! I’m hoping I should be all caught up by the end of the month!