Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Jan. 2022)
The Rose Code was my book club pick for January. I read The Alice Network a few years ago and only half liked it, so I wasn’t super excited to pick this one up, especially given it was 650 pages, but I ended up quite liking it, despite some flaws.
One of the key things I didn’t like about The Alice Network was the modern day storyline – there is no modern day story in The Rose Code and I think this helped with my enjoyment of it. So many historical fiction novels seem to follow the formulaic approach of splitting the story between two timelines and while The Rose code does this to an extent, there’s no present day narrative, which I rarely find adds much to the novel. Instead, The Rose Code focuses most of the narrative during the war, while occasionally jumping forward a few years.
The narrative focuses on 3 female codebreakers working at Bletchley Park. The setting was somewhat familiar to me having watched The Imitation Game, but I felt this provided a much more nuanced approach. Osla and Mab are mysteriously called to Bletchley Park for a job interview and meet on the train. They billet together in the local village where they meet their landlady’s daughter, Beth. It’s never explicitly stated, but the reader can assume Beth lies somewhere on the spectrum and while she doesn’t pick up on a lot of social cues, she is great with puzzles and ends up working at Bletchley Park as well.
This book covers a lot of history. Bletchley Park is credited as being extremely important to the war effort, with hundreds of individuals spread across the campus working on different parts of codebreaking and translation. This is done for the sake of privacy so that no single individual comes to possess too much information. Osla is a wealthy socialite who speaks 3 languages and is in a secret relationship with Prince Philip, who she meets at the start of the war. Mab doesn’t run in the same circles as Osla, but is trying to elevate her position by searching for a wealthy husband. And Beth is just trying to get out from under the shadow of her abusive, god-fearing mother.
Without getting into spoilers, I found the author’s note to be very illuminating. Osla Kendall is based on a real person, Osla Benning (with obvious liberties taken), who was actually Prince Philip’s wartime girlfriend. Mab is completely fictionalized and Beth is an amalgamation of two real female codebreakers. But upon reading the author’s note, I would say that the majority of Quinn’s characters are the amalgamation of a subset of real people. She does a great job at taking as many real aspects from history as she can and incorporating them into her fictional story. I especially liked her inclusion of the mental hospital in this book and think she could have written an entire book just on this topic.
Last year I read Kate Moore’s book, The Woman They Could Not Silence, which is about how many women would often be locked up in mental institutions, not because they were mentally ill, but as a way to oppress or silence them, often at the hands of their husbands, brothers, or fathers. It’s a fascinating subject in itself – had I not read Kate Moore’s book, I might have thought Quinn was including the hospital for dramatic effect, but actually I had no trouble believing this frustrating narrative and I think she did a really good job a capturing the sexism and injustice of it all.
I liked that each of the characters came from a different socio-economic backgrounds – it really gave a good scope of the war and struggles faced. I really liked Mab and thought the inclusion of her love story really well done. Each of the women had their own struggles and challenges, but they were all fully realized characters with a lot of character development.
So what didn’t I like about this book? There were really just 2 things. The first is that the book is far too long. Quinn goes REALLY in depth about codebreaking, and while it is interesting, I didn’t have a lot of context for it and I don’t think she really explained rodding and the bombe machines in a way that I could meaningfully understand how they worked. I found the narrative got a bit repetitive over time and I’m not exaggerating when I say I think she could have cut out at least 200 pages. It felt like there was a lot more filler than there needed to be.
The second thing I didn’t really like was the inclusion of Prince Philip’s relationship with Osla. This is set as the foundation of the entire story, with Quinn counting down the days to the royal wedding while we get flashbacks to the war. I think a lot of people are fascinated to learn that Philip has a wartime girlfriend, but I felt more along the lines of, why wouldn’t he? At the end of the day, the royal wedding and Osla’s relationship don’t actually have that much bearing on the story and I thought it was odd to center the entire narrative around it. For me, the codebreakers were the focal point of the story and I found the royal wedding to be distracting and tangential. I felt like Quinn discovered all these historical figures and just tried to cram as many as she could into one story without thinking critically about whether they belonged there. Or maybe she just thought a story with a byline about Prince Philip would sell, in which case, she’s not wrong because people lap up stories about the royal family.
Overall I just found the story took awhile to get going. I was glued to the page for the entire last third of the book, but it’s a bit of work to get there and I felt weary about it given the length of the book. Shorten this baby a bit and I think it would be even more inviting and accessible to readers. I do appreciate what Quinn has done in telling this story about Bletchley Park though. For a long time Bletchley Park was a hidden part of England’s history, and it’s exciting that the general public now gets the chance to learn about it. So 4 stars from me, which is still a great rating, despite its shortcomings.