“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn is a beautifully written novel that combines several genres and does credit to them all. It’s about women spies, about romance, about determination, and occasionally about men who wouldn’t believe them just because they were women.
The story alternates between the times of the two World Wars. In 1915, the reader meets Eve Gardiner, an intelligent young woman with a stutter, who because of her language ability — she speaks English, French and German — is recruited to be a spy for England. She is sent to France to work in the restaurant of a collaborator, an amoral man of fine taste who owns an equally fine restaurant frequented by the German officers.
The other main character’s story, thirty years later, is that of college girl Charlotte St. Clair — Charlie — who finds herself pregnant and unmarried two years after WWII ends. Her rather wealthy parents decide to take her to Switzerland for an “Appointment” to solve her problem, but Charlie has other plans. Her much beloved cousin, Rose, had disappeared at some point during the war, and she is determined to find out what happened to Rose and if she is still alive.
Quinn cleverly chose to have Eve’s story told from her point of view but in third person narrative, while Charlie’s story is told in first person. In each narration, the reader knows what the women are thinking, but the reader gets to know the Eve of 1915 through her own backstory unlike the Eve of 1947, whom the reader meets through Charlie’s eyes.
It all works beautifully and comes together elegantly. The book is difficult to put down, and the reader will be by turns, enchanted, worried, disgusted, heartbroken, and inspired by the action of the people in the story.
In fact, after the story is over, the impact is perhaps doubled by the Author’s Note, wherein the reader learns that the Alice Network was a real spy network during the First World War. It was run by the character in the book, Louise de Bettignies, who was nicknamed “Queen of the Spies.” And several events that take place in the story really happened. The Battle of Verdun was reported by this network of spies, but as Quinn relates in the notes, it “tragically went unbelieved at the command level.”
The story also touches on an atrocity from World War II when an entire town, Oradour-sur-Glane, was destroyed and its inhabitants killed by the Nazis. That tragedy is related by one of the survivors as it really happened. Part of the genius of the novel is the manner in which Quinn seamlessly weaves in history with her historical characters, both fictional and nonfictional.
This book is one that should be enjoyed by readers with an interest in historical fiction and the two world wars, and those who enjoy a bit of romance. It’s a study in character development and character change, but also a paean to the women of history who fought just as hard as the men for what is right. They just weren’t, in many cases, treated with similar admiration or respect.
Please note This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by William Morrow Trade Paperback Originals, the publisher, for review purposes.