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The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
Published by HarperAudio on March 9, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Length: 15 hours, 40 minutes
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1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything—beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses—but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart.
1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter--the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger--and their true enemy--closer..
I’ve spent the last month focusing on WW2 fiction and drama in honor of D-day on June 6th. I’ve shed a lot of tears, stared vacantly at the wall at the end of a particularly brutal story, and sighed with satisfaction at an HEA I had prepared myself not to get. But one theme runs through many of the memoirs I’ve watched and read: the triumph of human spirit despite the odds. It was tough to choose a single book to review from the variety I’ve read, but Kate Quinn’s newest release, The Rose Code, seemed to embody all the excitement of a spy novel, the romance of a love story, and operational detail of a documentary. I’d hoped to save this to read on vacation this month because it is a long one (over 600 pages written, and over 15.5 hours listening), but I was unable to resist the pull of Kate Quinn’s masterful storytelling.
While there is an overall story arc that ties the lives of the heroines together, it is largely a character driven novel. The three women end up at Bletchley Park, the center for Britain’s secret code-breaking operations during WW2, where they not only change the course of the war effort, but the outcome of their lives.
Mab is going to make something of herself. She’s determined to shake off her humble East End beginnings, and succeed; if only by sheer force of will. The giant chip on her shoulder is probably her biggest obstacle to success. I enjoyed watching her learn she doesn’t have to prove anything, that she is good enough as she is and deserves to be loved. While I guessed it was coming and tried to prepare myself, I found her heartbreak particularly difficult. Her profound grief and subsequent reaction, while painful to watch, was so true to her character, and I appreciated that Ms. Quinn didn’t take the easy way out in order to spare the reader’s feelings.
Osla is a socialite with something to prove. She’s sick of being just a ‘dizzy debutante’ and yearns to do something significant for the war effort. She’s not an obvious pick for Bletchley Park, she’s not a college student or particularly brainy. She proves she is worthy of the assignment that she gains by nepotism, displaying her facility with languages and earning promotions beyond the secretarial pool. I love that she stays true to her ‘bright young thing’ behaviors while taking on more and more responsibility. While she seems like she has the world at her fingertips and the pick of any prince, she’ll have to confront some hard truths before she finds love for real.
Beth is the shy, brilliant local girl who is drawn into Bletchley through the force that is Mab and Osla. She has many atypical characteristics, and my ire is constantly stirred by the hateful way she is treated. Her story really demonstrates how the power of love, in all its incarnations, and the positive influence it can have on someone’s entire state of being. Although as a character she is the most changed by the end of the book, in circumstance, appearance, and relationships, she remains the pre-occupied introvert who feels most at home in codes and equations.
I’m not a huge fan of alternating timelines (in this case 1940’s and 1950’s) but I don’t see how The Rose Code could have been done any other way. I loved how the pieces pulled together from each of the characters individual stories within an overall mystery. As the timelines draw closer together, the action ramps up, with a real nail-biter of an ending.
I loved the narration and it exceeded my expectations. Again, Saskia Maarleveld did a wonderful job making an extensive cast sound unique without being overly dramatic or caricaturized. I think that listening to this book enhanced my experience, especially with a volume this long.
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