Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

“Lili,” Eve asked impulsively. “Are you ever afraid?” Lili turned, rain dripping off the edge of her umbrella in a silver curtain between her and Eve. “Yes, just like everybody else. But only after the danger is done—before that, fear is an indulgence.” She slid her hand through Eve’s elbow. “Welcome to the Alice Network.”

Loosely based on the true story of a female-run spy network during World War I in France, The Alice Network follows Eve, a young spy working in the network, and Charlie, a woman searching for her beloved cousin shortly after the Second World War. The book flashes back and forth between Eve as a young woman in the network and Eve as an older, broken woman helping Charlie on her quest. Adding to the drama, Charlie is not the upper-class socialite her family tries to force her to be and is running from her own demons. Raising questions of what it means to serve and to save, The Alice Network is a compelling story about the largely overlooked contribution of a daring group of women during the Great War.

The Power of Solidarity of Women
The Alice Network is, above all else, a story of the power and bravery of women. The actual Alice Network run by Louise de Bettignies (“Alice Dubois”) is credited with saving the lives of more than a thousand British soldiers during the nine months of the height of its operation. She even obtained advance information on the German attack on Verdun, but the military officials in charge refused to believe the information. Verdun was ultimately the longest lasting and one of the most costly battles during World War I.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is a quote from Louise de Bettignies taken from a primary source written by someone familiar with those in the network.

“Bah.” Lili gave a wave of her hand, a hand so thin it was nearly transparent in the sunlight. “I know I’ll be caught one day, but who cares? I shall at least have served. So let’s hurry, and do great things while there is yet time.”

While The Alice Network is a work of fiction and Quinn admits she took quite a bit of license with the story, I wish there were more books like this. I wish any of the history classes I took in high school or college had bothered to include the contributions of women like these.

In the flashbacks, Quinn makes you care for Eve and Lilli/Louise/Alice deeply. The book stays true to the end result of the network and the woman who ran it, with these pages being some of the most emotionally wrenching of any book I’ve read recently. (This is not a book to be read in public as you draw closer to the end—the notes I kept while I read say “Damn you Kate Quinn for making me cry in a Starbucks.) I tried to find more on Louise de Bettignies after I finished The Alice Network but there seems to be very little out there. This is not terribly surprising but is frustrating and makes books like The Alice Network all the more relevant.

During the alternating scenes with Charlie, Eve is older and broken. She survived the war physically but little is left of her spirit—as the journey to find what happened to Charlie’s cousin Rose unfolds, so does Eve’s story, so that the flashbacks are presented as Eve telling Charlie and Finn (Eve’s handsome Scottish handyman….you can guess where that’s going to go) what happened to her. The deeper the trio travels into France, the deeper the reader gets into Eve’s story and the closer the reader gets to the traumatic events that led her to be the woman she is today. I occasionally found Charlie annoying, though I started to see her more as the vehicle through which the reader saw and learned more about Eve. With the book structured as it was, you get both Eve’s interpretation and story of what happened to her as well as an outsider’s view of who the woman Eve is now. The back-and-forth telling helped make Eve a more well-rounded character and gave you a “hook” to want to know how Eve of WWI became this broken Eve after WWII.

There was a clear villain (besides generally the Germans) and Quinn was masterful at making him so evil he was almost serpentine. My skin would crawl when he was on the scene and my heart would cheer each time Eve outwitted him or used him in the spy ring.

The Spies
As to the three spies you meet in the book, The Alice Network simultaneously emphasized both the amazing cunning and skills of the spies like Lili/Louise/Alice and Eve as well as their ordinary-ness. Besides learning multiple languages at early ages, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the lives these women led prior to being called up to service in the Network. Fictional Eve was a secretary, a square peg in a round hole, wanting to serve her country more directly than was typically allowed for women during the First World War. Louise was a poor aristocrat from a family with nothing left but its titles. And yet, women like these did something extraordinary, risked their lives in the service of others.

War Novels
By setting The Alice Network when she did, Quinn wrote both a World War I novel (Eve’s chapters) and a World War II novel (Charlie’s chapters). While I haven’t reviewed many on the blog, I am a big fan of a well-done World War II novel. I adore The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See and have read many of the other significant WWII novels published recently. (Knowing what a well-done WWII novel reads like is one of the things that made Lilac Girls so disappointing.)

So where does The Alice Network fit within the spectrum of recent WWII novels? Quinn isn’t quite Kristin Hannah or Anthony Doerr but her writing was heads and shoulders above Martha Hall Kelly in my estimation. I enjoyed Quinn’s writing, but there wasn’t anything in particular that made me pause to re-read a paragraph or turn of phrase. Her writing was, however, clear, engaging, and relatable. It has mass appeal—it won’t be accused of needing an editor but no one is going to accuse it of being too high-brow either. It did get off to a bit of a slow start but a little over a third of the way in, the pace picked up and I didn’t want to put the book down.

Minor annoyances
I appreciated that the author made Charlie interested in math—any time I see a girl into STEM in a book I want to cheer. I’m not a STEM-er myself but since this particular interest in underrepresented, I like seeing it. For Charlie, however, Quinn went a little over the top. Charlie thinks in math equations that bordered on silly, detracted from the story, and impaired my ability to take Charlie seriously.

Sample equations included “One scribbled address plus one dash of resolve multiplied to the power of ten,” “Rose plus me equaled happiness,” and “bullets plus blood plus threats of imminent death equaled a certain intimacy.” There were one or two that were funny (“boy plus girl multiplied by whiskey and proximity” made me chuckle) but on the whole they were overdone and made Charlie seem frivolous rather than serious. In the end, silly equations multiplied by eyerolls equals a negative star.

My only other hangup in the book is how frequently one of the pregnant characters drank. She was frequently drunk and I was worried her child was going to be born well-pickled. Some Googling tells me that it wasn’t until the early 70s that doctors identified Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a connection was solidly made between drinking and pregnancy, so this character’s drinking like a fish may have been consistent with the times. I just couldn’t take it, though. We know better now and so it seemed something that would be highly distracting to modern audiences. There are times when this character needs to be less inhibited so I could have been okay with it a few times but this too reached the point of frustration and distraction.

Tiny spoiler coming up—scroll if you want to skip it.

The book does wrap up somewhat neater than is likely for someone who has suffered what Eve and Charlie have, though I don’t begrudge Quinn for the happy-ish ending. The Alice Network is a book that is going for mass appeal and isn’t the kind of book that ends with misery and woe. There are so many other things in novels that require the suspension of belief, that this relatively happy ending for Charlie and Eve doesn’t feel like a terrible stretch, even if aspects of it felt a bit too easy.

Published June 6, 2017 by William Morrow (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Kate Quinn (@katequinn5975)
Date read: August 9, 2017
Rating: 4 Stars

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