What has an obscure French spy who worked for the British for a year in World War I and died in 1918 got to do with Flagler? Nothing and everything.
Nothing, if you think the local, the current, and that unfortunate selfie of our narcissistic culture, the “relatable,” are the only reasons to read a book. Everything, in that Flagler Reads Together, the wonderful annual, March-long communal reading program Mary Ann Clark started with “To Kill a Mockingbird” 18 years ago, is about reading without borders. The chosen books over the years have been fiction and non-fiction, as local as Jack Clegg’s history of Flagler County for last year’s county centennial, as universal as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and as double-taking as Bill O’Reilly’s surprisingly tolerable Killing Kennedy. Flagler Reads Together sometimes makes us read books we’d never pick up otherwise.
For me that goes for this year’s choice, Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Commendably, the Flagler Reads Together committee wanted to commemorate World War I on its final year’s centennial. But Quinn’s book was a poor choice. There’s excellent literature on World War I out there, contemporary or classic–Pat Barker, Erich Maria Remarque (The Road Back, less known but in many ways more powerful and current than All Quiet), Robert Graves’s memoir, Ford Madox Ford, even Mark Helprin. But to go with a cookie-cutting historical romancer who plops her stock characters in any given period, distinguishes them with a bit of Google Translate, a few secondarily-sourced facts and anachronistic language lipsynced from a Lifetime Television script isn’t the way to honor either that forgotten war or the pleasures of reading.
First, the fair parts.
Louise Marie de Bettignies was a French nurse turned allied spy during World War I. She went by the name Alice Dubois. By 1915 her “Alice Network” relied on 80 spies, men and women, most of them employed in the proximity of travel lanes like railroads or mail routes or of confessionals, like doctors, priests or even waiters and waitresses. They operated out of Lille and Roubaix on the French-Belgian border and gave away artillery emplacements, troop transport schedules, and in one case, a visit by Germany’s Kaiser: his train was spotted, but British bombers missed their target.
De Bettignes and her chief lieutenant, Leonie Vanhoutte (code name: Charlotte, like The Alice Network’s heroine), are credited with saving thousands of soldiers’ lives before the two spies’ capture in October 1915. De Bettignes died in prison of abuse and a botched operation weeks from the end of the war. Vanhoutte escaped and lived until 1967. De Bettignes–“Jeanne d’Arc of the north,” as the bishop of Lille called her–is one of the great if lesser-sung heroes of that lesser-known war, memorialized in a statue at the entrance to Lille and in a few books: Vanhoutte’s husband, Antoine Redier, in 1924 told the two women’s stories in his overly novelized “La guerre des femmes” (“The Women’s War”), an unfortunate title that would always be eclipsed by Alexandre Dumas’ barely less obscure novel of the same name set three centuries earlier. There was a now forgotten book by De Bettignes’ niece, Helène d’Argoeuves, in 1951, until then the only book written with the family’s permission, then René Deruyk straightforward account in 1998, and finally Chantal Antier’s most historically rigorous biography, published in 2013.
Quinn did some homework, Cliff Noted though it was. A book on De Bettignes for American audiences was a good idea. The Alice Network is not that book.
De Bettignes is peripheral to the story, as is the network. The book is half written from the perspective of Evelyn Gardiner, a homicidal drunk Englishwoman when we first meet her in the London of 1947. She seems to be a composite of De Bettignes’ spies, perhaps taking a few extra pages out of Leonie Vanhoutte’s life. The other half is told from the perspective of 20-year-old Charlotte St. Clair, a dull, insufferable, self-absorbed, self-pitying dimwit from a wealthy family carrying what she refers to incessantly as her “Little Problem,” an unwanted pregnancy, product of the only original and respectable thing about her: she’s slutty.
Quinn calls her “Charlie” (when other characters don’t call her “Yank” or “lass,” stereotype being Quinn’s security blanket), I imagine in a nod to what’s supposed to be the Hester Prinnish balls of steel Charlie grows over the course of the book. The steel never glints. Charlotte is too much of a whiner for that. Fifty million people have just died in the war, Europe is demolished, but she’s complaining about being dragged around by her parents to find a suitable place for an abortion. She’s moaning about having let her brother kill himself after he returned from the Pacific theater, maimed and destroyed, though it’s never clear why she was to blame for putting him through war rather than Tojo and Hitler. And she’s moaning about having let her cousin Rose, older by two years, disappear in Europe in 1939 though she had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Rose’s family just didn’t make it out of France before the Germans invaded. I was moaning at the way Quinn put it all: “It wasn’t enough that the ravenous war had reached out with greedy fingers and stolen my brother from me. The same beast had gobbled up Rose too, taken the girl I loved like a sister and riddled her with bullets.”
The self-absorbed love to think everything is their fault. It keeps pity and attention on them. And of course she’s moaning about her “Little Problem.”
The book alternates in short chapters between those told from Eve’s perspective in World War I and those told by Charlotte in 1947. What brings the two women together is mutual knowledge of an old restaurant Charlotte decides she wants to find. It’s where Eve spied. It’s where Rose-the-cousin apparently also spied during the Second war, and from where she disappeared. The set-up has the making of an interesting novel about women spies in the two wars, about post-war Europe in the mid-1940s, about how a pampered American princess might discover to what extent her problems, including her little one, amount to a hill of beans in the ravages of a continent. Again, The Alice Network is not that book.
It’s more like those buddy movies of the 1980s and 90s, two mismatched characters who must make it across a country or a continent–in this case England and France–for some mutual goal, despising each other at first and discovering their inseparableness along the way. Of course there’s a love interest for Charlotte thrown in (the car-loving Scott who calls her “lass” all the time), so you know from his first drip of engine oil that everything will work out for Charlotte and her “Little Problem,” just as you know that she and Eve are just Thelma and Louise but need to walk through the scene of a massacre and memories of bad sex to realize how much they really, really like each other. To stretch that out over more than 500 pages is interminable enough, but the predictiveness of it is too much, and Charlotte is an unbearable character to hang a door-stopper on.
Flagler Reads Together Over the Years
Post-war Europe in the Charlotte passages only makes a cameo or two, as in a brief trek through Oradour-sur-Glane, the infamous massacre of its inhabitants by the SS in June 1944 proving necessary to close a plot thread. The skeletal buildings are briefly described (they still stand as a memorial, the only town so preserved in France) but Quinn’s similes are ridiculous (“a toy village with no dolls”) and Charlotte is too concerned with only one of its victims to give the massacre the amplitude of shock it requires or give the passage any emotional weight beyond its plot point. World War I horrors are summed up even more lazily. Quinn must not have found the empty fields of the Somme inspiring. So Charlotte asks Eve: “How terrible was it, Eve?” And Eve replies: “Oh, you know. German boots stamping on the necks of the starving, people shot in alleys. Bad.” It reminded me of the scene in “The Breakfast Club” when Emilio Estevez’s Andrew asks Ally Sheedy’s Allison: “So what’s wrong? What is it? Is is bad? Real bad? Parents?” Except that the “Breakfast Club” scene is more authentic, because it’s more in proportion.
It’s pretty simple: the further “The Alice Network” gets away from Charlotte, the more interesting it gets, though not by much. Quinn’s facility with clichés aside, Eve is a more fully realized character, a bag of bony demons who thinks she betrayed Alice (who calls herself “Lili” for some reason), and she can’t forgive herself for sleeping with the owner of the restaurant where she was assigned to spy on Germans. The restaurateur is René Bordelon, a Baudelaire-obsessed collaborator and sadist who happens to be the most interesting character in the book and as close as Quinn gets to the psyche of collaborationists more interested in profiteering than anything else. But what spying takes place is secondary to the double-agent relationship that develops between Eve and Bordelon, a relationship bound to end in Eve’s undoing and imprisonment.
There are a few bearable secondary characters, like Finn the Scott and love interest to Charlotte and for Eve there’s Captain Cameron, who’d recruited her and also survived. But just as Quinn makes sure we know her French characters are French by having them say “merde,” “baguette” and “Gauloise” (because Quinn’s characters don’t smoke cigarettes, they smoke Gauloises, and of course they only listen to Edith Piaf) even the bearable ones all end up speaking banalities: “I’m a broken-down army officer with a lot of dead recruits on my hands, Eve. I don’t have it in me to be happy.” “A man with a Bentley has everything he needs, lass.” Why that one so needed Charlotte, then, is left unexplained. Two wars on, I was glad to be rid of her.
♦ March 23: Nancy Duke-Burkhead, professor at Daytona Beach College, will discuss “Roles of Women during WWI” in a 2 p.m. presentation at the Doug Cisney Reading Room at the Flagler County Public Library, 2500 Palm Coast Pkwy.
♦ March 28: The Flagler Book Club gathers to discuss this year’s selection at 3:30 p.m. in the meeting room of the county public library, 2500 Palm Coast Pkwy.
♦ March 31: Flagler Reads Together holds its final event of the month featuring Tom Schmidt, a history professor at Florida State College in Jacksonville. He and his wife recently toured two battlefields of World War I in France, including the Somme and Verdun. He has taken some beautiful and touching pictures of the battlefields and will be presenting them along with some background history of the area and battles. 2 p.m. in the Doug Cisney Reading Room at the Flagler County Public Library, 2500 Palm Coast Pkwy.