The Lure of the Moonflower
By Lauren Willig
The most recent assignment of Jane Wooliston, the English spy known as the Pink Carnation, leads her to French-occupied Portugal where her task is to locate Queen Maria. The Portuguese monarch was supposed to have been on a ship with others of the royal family on their way to Brazil. Instead she has disappeared. There are several possibilities as to who is behind the disappearance of the queen who, mad and violent though she may be, can still be a useful political tool. Jane knows that it is imperative that she find the queen before the French do.
Jane is working at a disadvantage because she no longer has her well-trained cadre of operatives to aid her. Moreover, her knowledge of Portuguese is limited to what she learned in a few weeks study. For the duration of this assignment, she is uncomfortably dependent upon the help of a single agent assigned to her, an agent as famous for his shifting allegiances and his reluctance to follow orders as for his formidable skills. The notorious Moonflower, former French agent, is definitely not an operative with whom Jane would have chosen to work.
The Moonflower, also known as Jack Reid, is in Rossio Square in Lisbon as instructed to meet his contact, but he is not expecting that contact to be a dark-haired courtesan wearing Paris fashions. When the courtesan discards her dark curls, greets him by name, and identifies herself as the Pink Carnation, Jack laughs. It seems impossible that this woman with her pure profile and steady eyes could be the spy who struck fear in the hearts of the French. Once he accepts that Jane is the Pink Carnation, he is skeptical of her mission. He advises her to “cut her losses and go home.” Of course, Jane is not about to give up on an assignment, and with no small effort, she persuades Jack to do his part.
Soon the two are assuming various disguises and engaged in feats of derring-do as they complete their mission and see the Queen to safety. Other characters from the series make appearances, including the infamous French spymaster, the Gardener, and the indomitable Miss Gwen (now Mrs. Reid and stepmother to Jack). Jane’s story grows more poignant as her flaws and vulnerabilities are exposed, and Jack’s behavior becomes more comprehensible as his point of view is added to what others have revealed.
The parallel contemporary narrative of Eloise Kelly and Colin Selwick reaches its happily-ever-after ending as their wedding day approaches with all the dramatis personae present, accounted for, and true to character, but not before the twenty-first-century characters have an adventure of their own. No spoilers here since the novel opens with Eloise’s borrowing the words of another heroine: “Reader, I married him.”
The Lure of the Moonflower concludes Willig’s popular Pink Carnation series. Before Willig wrote the first word of this novel, it was burdened with high expectations. While there are doubtless readers who have sampled a few books in the series, there is also a large core group of readers who have been invested in this series through more than a decade and a dozen books. As a member of this group, I can only say that the concluding book was everything I hoped it would be.
Although readers will find the tongue-in-cheek approach, the banter that delights, and the risky adventures that have characterized the series present in this book as well, they will also find a Jane seasoned by her experiences, less certain of who she is, and more aware of what her choices have cost her. In one moment of insight, Jane realizes that the game has changed: “But the game had turned darker somewhere along the way. It had gone from a game of wits to a struggle for survival, where there were no points for cleverness, only for results.”
Later she ponders the cost of the “game”:
Piece by piece, Jane felt herself washing away, like a pebble in a pond, smoothed into featurelessness by the successive waves that crashed over her, until there was nothing left there that was uniquely her own. She wondered dimly what the girl who had first come to Paris five years before would think of the woman she had become. Would she be proud of her achievements? And would she long after all that had been lost? So very, very much lost. Lost ideas, lost ideals, lost comrades.
Jack is her match precisely because he does understand Jane’s confusing mix of emotions. Beginning as opposites, she the idealist motivated by a noble purpose and he a pragmatist who sells his skills, they find they are remarkably similar in their defiance of labels (she as woman, he as a mixed race bastard) and in their lostness and loneliness. Jack is also that rare male who can accept Jane as an equal. “I’m not asking you to be an ornament. Or stand on a pedestal. I’m asking you to slog through the mud with me, blisters and all. If you’ll have me.”
She does indeed have him, and Willig assures us that their life after marriage continues to be extraordinary. Eloise and Colin’s HEA completes the picture. No loose threads to tease and taunt in this one. Mark me one deliciously satisfied reader, albeit one mourning the end of the series.
If you have enjoyed other Pink Carnation books, add this one to your TBR immediately. If you have not read any of the other Pink Carnation books, I recommend the full series. Although The Passion of the Purple Plumeria (Book 10) is my top favorite with The Mischief of the Mistletoe a close second, all twelve books are keepers. I know I’ll be rereading them, and I’ll also remind myself that Willig has not ruled out The Return of the Pink Carnation.