Book Reviews

Book Review: The Rose Code by Kate Quinn – Great Historical Fiction

Every now and then a book surprises me with how much I end up enjoying it. One of those books was The Rose Code. In fact, I’d have to say it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year. Told mostly as a flashback, this is the story of three women who serve their country during World War II and beyond, and a friendship that is shattered because of it.

It is 1947. In the shadow of the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, two women receive mysterious letters demanding their help. Both are reluctant to reopen old wounds, but their curiosity has been piqued.

Back in 1940, these two women volunteered for what they believed was a simple clerical job to help out their country during World War II. Osla is a society girl, having grown up with an absentee mother, who yearns to prove she is more than a silly debutante. Mab is from the East End of London and is trying to reinvent herself while finding a husband who can pull her out of the seemingly endless cycles of poverty there. Both are smart and capable but must prove themselves in a world filled with men at Bletchley Park, where they work in secret trying to break German military codes.

Osla is nearly fluent in German and helps with the translation of the broken codes. Mab eventually finds her height to be an advantage in operating some of the machines built to aid in the decryption. The two board at a private home where they befriend Beth, the daughter of their landlady. She’s been kept under her mother’s thumb her entire life, but Osla and Mab are determined to help her spread her wings. They manage to get her employed at Bletchley Park with them, and soon she is one of the top cryptanalysts in the war effort.

The three share living quarters and many fun adventures during the war. Osla organizes a literary society among the workers at Bletchley Park and they soon manage to cajole Beth out of her shell a bit more. Osla is also dating Prince Philip of Greece, although his family’s ties to the Nazis raise eyebrows among those in power at Bletchley Park. The oath they all took not to talk about what they are doing means she can’t even tell him what’s going on.

On the serious side, there are critical moments to break codes and find out what the Germans are up to. There is also false information being fed back to the Germans, and conversations must be monitored to determine whether it’s working or not. Everyone is under tremendous pressure. Many of the men working there suffer as people think they are refusing to serve their country, and they can’t explain what they are really doing.

Following the war, Beth makes a startling discovery. Unfortunately, the friends she could turn to have turned their back on her after learning she didn’t tell them about an upcoming attack that ended in disaster. Beth is written to sound like she is on the autism spectrum and her actions upon uncovering the possibility of a double-agent get her sent to an asylum. She’s still there in 1947 in a race against time to get out and find the spy. Will Osla and Mab put aside their feelings of betrayal and help her?

I just loved The Rose Code. It’s based on actual events, such as the breaking of the Enigma Code and a true story of how the analysts at Bletchley Park broke a code and turned the tables on the Italian Navy. Other parts are made up for the sake of the story, but there’s enough reality here to blend in well with history.

The characters are also very interesting. Osla is typical of someone who never had to worry about where her next meal was coming from, and she’s dating a Prince besides! It would be very easy to write her off, but she’s here to prove herself as well as prove to herself there’s more to life than just catching a wealthy husband. Her loyalty to her oath and her country condemns her relationship (we all know who he married, so no spoiler there) and she takes it well, knowing that she was someone important to the war effort and not just a pretty face. Mab seems to be the social climber here, but even in the end, she’s much more. It’s harder for her to forgive Beth for what happened.

Beth is really the central character though. She’s been convinced by her mother that she’s too stupid to hold a job and resigned to taking care of her parents for the rest of her life. However, once she’s out from her mother’s iron fist she begins to grow. Part of it is that she feels important now as an individual, rather than facing life as someone’s servant. She also turns out to be very smart when the right work is put in front of her. They all choose very different paths even while at Bletchley Park, but they have a common bond of what they are going through that no one else will ever know about.

I highly recommend The Rose Code to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, in particular about World War II. It’s not really chick-lit, although relationships do come into play. That is more the product of the times than anything else. The main story is really the work at Bletchley Park and the relationships there, and it’s a fascinating one.