In The Alice Network, Kate Quinn tells two parallel stories, one set in World War I and the other just after World War II, in alternating chapters. The book begins in 1947, when the American college student Charlie St. Clair, pregnant and unmarried, arrives in London with her mother, on her way to a Swiss clinic where she has an appointment to end her pregnancy, to avoid social embarrassment for her wealthy family. Charlie is not sure that is what she wants, though. She is devastated by the suicide of her brother after his traumatic experiences in World War II, and her failure—as she sees it—to help him more. And she is determined to discover what happened to her French cousin Rose, who disappeared in occupied France during the war. Charlie holds on to a slim hope that her cousin might still be alive. So she sneaks away from her mother and finds a woman who might know something about what happened to Rose. This is Eve Gardiner, a bitter, hard-drinking, gun-toting woman in her fifties with damaged hands. At first Eve is hostile to Charlie, and it seems like she will do nothing for her, but then, after Charlie tells her that Rose worked in a restaurant owned by a man named René, Eve decides to help her after all. Charlie, Eve, and Eve’s driver, a handsome Scotsman named Finn, drive through the French countryside in search of Rose. Kate Quinn’s descriptions of the French countryside are breathtaking.
In the other story line, we learn about the young Eve’s experiences as part of an all-female spy network in World War I. Eve is orphaned, works as a file clerk in London, looks much younger than her actual age, and talks with a stutter. Because of this, everyone underestimates her, until Captain Cameron comes along and recognizes her potential as a spy. She is fluent in French and German, even though she pretends not to know German. Cameron recruits her for the spy network, which is run by Lili, who uses the code name Alice Dubois. Eve takes a job as a waitress in a restaurant in the German-occupied city of Lille. The restaurant caters to German officers, and Eve learns much valuable information, including plans for an eventually unsuccessful attack on the Kaiser, which she passes on to Lili, who in turn gives it to the Allied authorities. Eve’s career as a spy goes well until the restaurant owner, René Bordelon, takes an interest in her. Eve is forced to sleep with René, a collaborator and profiteer, in order to obtain even more valuable information from him than she did from the officers. But how long can she keep her identity a secret and avoid exposing the spy network?
Many years later, when Charlie tells her Rose’s story, Eve realizes that the René that Rose worked for is her old enemy, a man she thought was dead. Now Eve is determined to get revenge on him. But René has changed his last name and always seems to be one step ahead of the authorities. Meanwhile, Charlie begins to have feelings for the driver, Finn, and she thinks she might want to keep her baby, after all. It all leads to an explosive conclusion, which proves very satisfying.
The Alice Network is a wonderful tribute to the courageous women who served their country as spies during World War I and risked their lives in order to pass on vital secrets about enemy activity. These women knew they could face the firing squad if captured. The details of how they worked are fascinating: leaving messages on a thin piece of paper wrapped around a hairpin, or between the pages of a book. I admit I found Eve’s story more compelling than Charlie’s, and, from other people’s reviews, I can see I am not alone in that opinion. But Charlie’s story is suspenseful in its own way, as you wonder how the older Eve got to be the way she is, what form her revenge will take, and whether Rose is still alive or not. Parts of the book are not for the squeamish: there are horrific scenes of torture and a massacre in a French village. But it is a well-written, suspenseful novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys novels about World War I or World War II. I also recommend Quinn’s other novels: her Empress of Rome series and her two novels about the Borgias.
The Alice Network is available from the Browsing Collection in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.