Monday, February 28, 2011

The Orchid Affair by Lauren Willig

Book Description:
In The Orchid Affair, Willig introduces her strongest heroine yet. Laura Grey, a veteran governess, joins the Selwick Spy School expecting to find elaborate disguises and thrilling exploits in service to the spy known as the Pink Carnation. She hardly expects her first assignment to be serving as governess for the children of Andre Jaouen, right-hand man to Bonaparte's minister of police. Jaouen and his arch rival, Gaston Delaroche, are investigating a suspected Royalist plot to unseat Bonaparte, and Laura's mission is to report any suspicious findings.

At first the job is as lively as Latin textbooks and knitting, but Laura begins to notice strange behavior from Jaouen-secret meetings and odd comings and goings. As Laura edges herself closer to her employer, she makes a shocking discovery and is surprised to learn that she has far more in common with Jaouen than she originally thought...

As their plots begin to unravel, Laura and Jaouen are forced on the run with the children, and with the help of the Pink Carnation they escape to the countryside, traveling as husband and wife. But Delaroche will stop at nothing to take down his nemesis. With his men hot on their trail, can Laura and Jaouen seal the fate of Europe before it's too late?

About six months ago, Lauren Willig, the author of the ever successful and entertaining Pink Carnation Series, ran a contest over at her blog to design a cover (just for fun) of her (then) upcoming book, The Orchid Affair, the latest installment in the series.  The contest arose because her publishers decided to change the look of her covers, as well as redesign the covers in her backlist.   Some liked the new cover (which is not the one you see above) and some didn't.  You see, Willig's first covers all have a certain look to them, very pretty with the arresting face of a young lady on the cover.  They were beautiful and distinctive, in my opinion.  I entered the contest and designed a cover, it was fun!  Well, needless to say, I was flabbergasted when I won! (handily, I might add, you can read about it here.).  My prize for winning was an advance copy sent personally to me from Lauren (thank you Lauren!) 

Did I read it right away?  No, I'm sorry to say, it languished on my book shelf, silently scolding me to pick it up and get to it!  All I can say is, I still needed to read Mischief of the Mistletoe, then I got busy with other books and for some reason I kept putting it off somehow.  I think I just didn't want to read the last book (to date) in the series and I sort of felt a little guilty reading it before it actually came out in January.  Plus, I liked having it to look forward to.  Does that sound crazy?  Whatever it was, I'm sorry I waited.  It was a great read, although a departure from the rest of the series. 

Laura Grey has been a governess for the last sixteen years.  As we find out over the course of the book, Laura wasn't born to be a governess.  Yet, due to the unfortunate death of her flamboyant and much loved parents, she is orphaned as a teen and must make her own way in the world any way she can.  But, now the time has come when she is determined to set a new course in her life to leave off being a governess and become a... spy.  This is her chance to alter her lifestyle and do something exciting, daring, courageous!  What kind of spy does she become?  A governess!

Yes, but not just any governess.  She is now working for the Pink Carnation's network in Paris, posing as a governess to learn secrets while inside the household of Andre Jaouen, a lawyer who has become important in Napolean's ministry of police.  Jaouen has two children in need of a governess and Laura fits the bill perfectly.  Newly graduated from Richard and Amy Selwick's spy school (created after the first book in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation), Laura is determined to be the best and most efficient spy there ever was.  But, as she uncovers secrets about her employer, we learn more about Laura and her childhood as well.  Just who were her parents really, and how is it that she and the widower, Jaouen, have a mutual acquaintance - the flamboyant artist, Antoine Daubier?

Before we know it, all hell breaks loose!  As he and Laura develop more of a friendship than an employer/employee relationship, we learn that Andre is not what he seems at all!  The jig is up and he is in grave danger.  It's up to Laura to help him flee from Paris undercover with his children and the artist, Daubier!  Our Mademoiselle Grey, who is really Laure Griscogne, enlists the aid of the Pink Carnation to spirit them out of the country disguised as a band of traveling actors, touring the French countryside.  Andre sees a whole new side to Laure - and likes it!  Posing as man and wife (and their two children) they become close - very close. What is an act and what isn't?  Both of them shed their former disguises as employer and employee for new ones - lover, husband, wife.  Will Laura succeed in getting them all safely out of the country - and what will happen when they reach England?  Will their magical month of traveling together as man and wife, performing across the country become a distant memory when they don't need each other anymore?

I loved this storyline.  It was very clever, filled with depth and buried emotions.  Andre and Laura must keep their feelings inside and hidden for most of the story for they are both hiding the truth to everyone of what they really are.  Andre has much to lose, he goes from an important official in the ministry to a wanted traitor who will surely go to the guillotine if caught.  Laura helps him, but the month they travel together is filled with worry - will they make it to safety?  While on the run, I loved it when they finally give in to their passion and fall into bed with one another (playing their parts convincingly as man and wife).  Their nights together are their own in their little cocoon, a chance to love and forget the uncertainty and danger surrounding them.  There in their tiny bed at night, they cannot deny what they are feeling - yet neither is in a position to discuss the future.  Plus, Andre's daughter does not like the idea one bit.  They must keep their new found love from her as well.

I believe that of all the books in the series, this felt like the most dangerous and at the same time, the most poignant love story of them all.  Neither Andre nor Laura are superhuman, in fact it took me a while to warm up to them as hero and heroine, although I empathized with them and their individual wants and predicaments. By the last third of the book, they are trying to escape with their lives, yet they find love on the way.  The love story is subtlety woven, built up gradually, leading to an exciting finale that features some old friends from previous books.

Willig has great character development in all her books, her minor characters are wonderful as well, it's one of her strong suits.  The Orchid Affair is no exception.  Laura is a strong heroine, able to meet the demands that are pressed upon her, no matter what.  I loved the scene in which she must become a femme fatale at Daubier's studio to distract the bad guys!  Andre gets a bit distracted as well! *grin* 

This is by far the most complex and gritty plot line of the series, highlighting the terror and danger of the ministry of police with it's tentacles that can reach out and grab you.  Trust me, you don't want to get caught.  The research is first rate as well as the writing, authentic dialogue, locations and descriptions.  Another amazing addition to an amazing series!

As far as Colin and Eloise's modern day story - did you think I forgot about them?  Now in Paris, the story is really getting interesting.  We meet Colin's mother and stepfather at his mother's birthday party and a real bombshell is dropped!  Adds quite a twist to the plot line and Colin's baby sister no longer seems as lost and innocent to me as she once did!  Some nice canoodling between Eloise and Colin goes on, but I'm eager to see what develops with the latest bit of info we've now garnered at the party.  Stay tuned!



Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Love the sound of this story. You do provide the best recs! I loved The Zookeeper's Wife.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Thanks Julia! I'm glad you've read some ones you've liked based on my recommendations!

Scorpio M. said...

Hi Julie,

I remember you winning that cover contest. I do have to say that your cover is prettier and if they could've they should have went with yours! :)

I have this in my TBR. I'm reading this series out of order. I started with The Mischief of Mistletoe, which I read because of your review, I loved Turnip & Arabella! Maybe because MOTM didn't feature Colin & Eloise so I'm not used to their storyline but I find the modern interludes very distracting.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Scorpio - thanks! I like my cover better too. Actually, the publisher did re-do the cover at the contest, and they came up with this one (above). They kept the wax seal look, but used a girl with the head cut off, it's not bad, but I feel like they just quickly threw it together because of the kerfuffle over their first cover look.

Yvette said...

Congratulations on your win! And thanks for this review. I didn't even realize there was a new Willig out yet.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Thanks Yvette - it happened so long ago - but I was amazingly surprised about it!

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