Kate Quinn Tells Two Tales of War
The 20th century certainly isn’t going to fall far enough behind in our collective rear-view mirror to be forgotten anytime soon, its events still serving as centrepieces for innumerable works of fiction. Mainly, the two world wars have fuelled the imagination of countless authors, all of them seeking to explore different sides and aspects of the two conflicts. I think it’s safe to say Kate Quinn belongs to this group of authors, with her novel The Alice Network telling two stories connected by war, loss and history.
The first story presented by the novel takes us to 1915, with World War I coming into full swing. Parts of France have fallen to the invading enemy, but the country still resists with all of its might. Here we make the acquaintance Eve Gardiner, a young woman with a burning passion for fighting back the invaders and a chance of enact it as she joins the infamous spy network run by the real historical figure, Louise de Bettignies (alias “Alice Dubois”). Working as a French collaborator, Eve takes up disguise as a waitress in a restaurant in Lille, serving German soldiers and passing on information to her British handlers.
The second story takes us forward by thirty-two years to 1947, with Evelyn Gardiner now having aged and more or less fallen into an unremarkable, almost sorry type of life, coloured largely by the betrayal which led to the end of the spy network she gave her life to. We meet Charlotte St Clair, a nineteen-year-old American girl coming over to Switzerland with her mother for a safe abortion. She ends up making the acquaintance of Evelyn and her chauffeur, Finn, and they all set out on a journey in search of something personal in a France still ravaged by the Second World War. A mission for the truth stands before them, and they are all intent on following it no matter where it leads.
WWI Secret Agents in The Alice Network
While the narrative does alternate between the two stories from one chapter to the next, I still think it makes the most sense to examine them individually and what they have to offer on their own. Thus, let us begin with them in chronological order, starting with what is essentially a spy thriller set in the occupied parts of France in 1915. The change of scenery from typical WWII spy novels is already a welcome change of pace, and in my opinion this is the narrative where the book exceeds in flying colours.
Kate Quinn obviously did a fantastic job at researching the inner workings of the spy network and obviously put a lot of effort into bringing the characters to life, especially the ones depicting real historical figures. We get to learn quite a bit about how those women lived without ever getting sucked too deep into dry facts or unnecessary complexities; Quinn remembers this is, first and foremost, a novel, which means it must be entertaining.
We get an in-depth look of what it might have been like to lead a life as a double agent back in those days, and overall the author’s depiction of occupied France left nothing to be desired in my opinion. She captured quite well the conflicting atmospheres of hopelessness and valiance in the face of defeat, and the various side characters were depicted with a true depth to them. If anything, the author’s writing served to highlight the human side of war, how beneath every fighter and soldier is a normal guy or girl yearning for a simple life without death and carnage. All in all, this narrative was the big highlight of the book for me.
The Second Narrative
The second story, which takes place thirty years in the future, was in my opinion the weaker side of the equation, but it did ultimately have its purpose, which I will get to in a little bit. Our main protagonist for this segment, the pregnant nineteen-year-old American girl Charlotte isn’t exactly as engaging as our spy ladies from the First World War. On the contrary, she seems to be a bit out of time and place, being more reminiscent of a modern teenager than anything else. I would venture to say she feels more like a vehicle than an actual character, with her actions being fairly predictable and at times unrealistic for the epoch.
The mystery surrounding her journey through France, the unresolved fate of her cousin during the First World War, also seems like a bit of a push and something which stays visible on in the background somewhere. Additionally, the Scottish hunk of a man seemed to add little to no value at all to the story, and yet he remained with us throughout the whole thing. The story does get more interesting when Charlotte crosses paths with Eve, but at this point the latter feels like she was reduced to a shell of her former self, and the excitement of the WWI narrative isn’t to be recaptured.
Now, I did say I think this whole approach has a purpose earlier, and what I believe the author tried to do was give a modern window for a modern audience to understand the events of the past. With how fast time and information travels nowadays, with every decade we became far more removed from the events of the past than in any other era in human history. I earnestly believe the author felt it necessary to add this modern element to the story so as to help the young readers of today follow along with the stakes and the events transpiring. While personally-speaking I can’t say it did much for me, I will admit I can’t speak from the perspective of younger readers and it might be an element more appealing to them than it was to me.
The Final Verdict
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn gave me a bit of a mixed feeling, offering one narrative which was perfect in every sense of the word, and a second one which felt like it was more in the realms of average, although I may not have been the perfect target audience for it. On the whole, I would say if you enjoy WWI and WWII spy thrillers and journeys to uncover secrets and mysteries of the past, then I recommend you do give this book a fair chance, for it does have a lot to offer.
Kate Quinn is a bestselling author in both New York Times and USA Today, with her primary focus revolving around historical fiction. She also holds a Master’s degree in Classic Voice from Boston University. After writing four books for the Empress of Rome Saga, she moved on to the 20th century with The Huntress and The Alice Network.