Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
It's about: It is the 1792 bloody revolution in France, when every known aristocrat has either already been victim to Madame Guillotine or is imprisoned in the Bastille, awaiting that inevitable fate. The British government may be too diplomatic (or is it cowardly?) to interfere with the new, blood-thirsty Republican government, but one Englishman -- that elusive Scarlet Pimpernel -- and his secretive entourage dare to concoct infuriatingly clever schemes to rescue hundreds of innocent French aristocrats, right from underneath the government's nose. But when the Scarlet Pimpernel's true identity is compromised and a trap is set for him, will he still be able to help those he has promised and make it back to England alive?
This one-of-a-kind classic is comedy, thriller, and romance all rolled up into one and entangles the fate of the mysterious, two-faced Scarlet Pimpernel, the merciless French government agent Chauvelin, who has sworn to discover, capture, and execute him, and the lovely but unhappily married leader of English society and fashion, Marguerite Blakeney.
I thought: Though the book starts off to a rather slow beginning, and I struggled to get my foothold in the story (just who were the main characters, and who could I forget about?), after the first few chapters, this book became a fast-paced, can't put it down kind of story that I finished in only a couple of sittings. Like a true mystery/suspense story, most of the characters appear flat and stereotypical when first introduced, and by the end, many of them have remained so. It is up to the reader, then, to decide which characters have something to hide and which are exactly as they seem.
The writing quality is wonderfully, refreshingly intelligent. (And by intelligent I mean I found at least 20 of my GRE vocab words in it) Although I found the "mysteries" of the book to be rather... solvable early on, that surprisingly did not interfere with my enjoyment of the book; indeed, I was caught up in the story to the very end.
My one complaint about this book is the female author's rather disappointing depiction of her lead female character. Instead of taking the opportunity to make her defy the prevailing Victorian notions of weak, overly emotional women, I thought that the summation of Marguerite's character turned out to fit the stereotype fairly well. That sounds cryptic, I know, but I can't say more without giving away anything about the story. I also realize that not every female author needs to have a feminist agenda -- I just can't help feeling but that it was a missed opportunity.
Verdict: Stick this gem of a classic on the shelf.
Reading Recommendations: If you're looking for a classic to put on your "already read" list but don't want to labor through a difficult one, go for this one. It isn't an arduous classic but rather so fun and easy to read you almost feel guilty about the lack of struggle.
This is the kind of writing you can expect from Orczy, though the book is generally much more exciting than this quote makes it sound; I just didn't want to give away any spoilers....
"The sound of the distant breakers made her heart ache with melancholy. She was in the mood when the sea has a saddening effect upon the nerves. It is only when we are very happy, that we can bear to gaze merrily upon the vast and limitless expanse of water, rolling on and on with such persistent, irritating monotony, to the accompaniment of our thoughts, whether grave or gay. When they are gay, the waves echo their gaiety; but when they are sad, then every breaker, as it rolls, seems to bring additional sadness, and to speak to us of hopelessness and of the pettiness of all our joys."
Currently reading: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan