The Alice Network by Kate Quinn is an ambitious work of historical fiction that straddles two world wars and their aftermath, and that shines a light on the heroic work of female spies. Quinn uses a solid base of historical fact and real people to create her fictional heroine Eve (aka Evelyn Gardiner, aka Marguerite Le Francois), a spy for England in WWI who made shattering sacrifices and has never healed from her tragic and brutal experiences. Eve is an alcoholic recluse when, in the spring of 1947, an assertive and unrelenting American girl named Charlie (Charlotte), who is single and pregnant, shows up at her door in the belief that Eve can help Charlie track down her French cousin Rose, missing since the end of WWII. Thus begins an adventure into Eve’s past as well as Charlie’s and a mystery about the fate of both Rose and Rene Bordelon, a man Eve had thought dead.
Charlie and Eve alternate narrating chapters, so as we learn about Eve’s past as a WWI spy, we also learn about Charlie, a 19-year-old who was a math major from a wealthy east coast family but had to leave school after getting pregnant. Her parents, who call her a whore and are disgusted by what she has done, arrange for her to have her “little problem” taken care of in Switzerland, but Charlie has other plans. We learn about Charlie’s brother James, whose experiences as a Marine in WWII led to his eventual suicide, and about her childhood friendship with her beloved cousin Rose. Everyone supposes Rose is dead, but Charlie is determined to find her trail and get to the truth of the matter. She is initially scared and wary of Eve, who gets drunk, has nightmares and carries a gun, but with the help of Eve’s driver Finn, Charlie is able to get Eve to go along with her plans. Finn adds to complications though, as he is also a WWII veteran with a troubled past, and he is a very handsome fellow to boot. There is an element of romance to this novel that I think some readers will find quite enjoyable. Charlie is a smart young woman who knows what she wants and what she does not want. She’s feisty and forthright but is also willing to acknowledge her mistakes and try to make things better. One of the things Charlie must face is the sexism all women had to deal with in 1947. Despite the fact that she has a bank account, banks will not allow her to access her own money without the approval of her father or a spouse. She knows that even though she loves math and has a head for numbers, her options for employment are limited because she is a woman, and being pregnant and single adds a whole other layer of discrimination and ostracism. Yet Charlie is undeterred and believes she can make her own dreams come true. I think readers will find themselves rooting for her.
The strength of the novel, however, is in the chapters regarding Eve’s involvement in WWI. Through Eve, Quinn demonstrates how women were recruited to the cause as well as the types of women who were drawn to it. Eve is young (about 22 when the war starts), but looks even younger and more innocent than her years. She knows several languages and is observant but reveals little about herself because of her stutter. Others think of her as slow and dimwitted because of it, but they couldn’t be more wrong. It takes a spy master to recognize the intelligence and value in someone like Eve, and Captain Cameron sees what others do not. He recruits her and she, uninterested in a traditional life of husband and babies, longing instead to fight, willingly becomes part of the Alice network. Alice is Alice Dubois, aka Lili, a French woman who runs a successful network of spies behind enemy lines in France. Lili was a real person and really a spy, as were a number of other characters in this novel. Quinn, who relied on historical documents to flesh out her story, incorporates many of the situations in which the female spies found themselves, including the types of work they did, how spies got caught, and what life as a prisoner of war was like. Women were excellent spies, and both Lili and Eve demonstrate this in the story. Yet they had to deal with sexism from their male superiors, many of whom doubted their abilities and the information they gathered. Women were seen as weak and emotionally fragile, so the men expected them to break and come home. Eve is aware of this and it drives her to never give in, to push forward and take risks. Better to die than go home and never be allowed to work as a spy again. Eve manages to get a job as a server at a cafe in Lille that is run by Rene Bordelon, a suave Frenchman who is also a profiteer. He willingly collaborates with the Germans, hosting them in his restaurant and helping them so that they will help him. Rene is a treacherous snake of a man, and he has his eyes on Eve. The way their relationship plays out adds to the tension of the story, some of which, again, is based on facts. I will only say that while Eve survives the war, she has paid a great price and is dogged by feelings of guilt for decades to come.
Despite its length, this novel trips along at a good clip. There is plenty of action, and for me, it was all the more exciting because it is based in historical fact and features strong, smart women. The stories of Charlie and Eve have much in common, and by the end, the two women who initially had reservations about each other have been able to see through to the truth and respect each other. Rene Bordelon is a truly sinister villain, and the parts of the story featuring him make the skin crawl, while Finn Kilgore is charming but damaged. The horrors of PTSD are shown throughout the novel. This would make a great choice for a book group (questions are provided at the end). I would be interested in hearing what other readers make of some of the decisions made at the end of the story.