Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig

I finished this book early last week, but life has intervened. There has been so much going on at home and at work that this is my first quiet moment to write down my thoughts.

I am a historian. So for me this work is a classic. I don’t mean it is a classic in the sense that fifty years from now it will be placed on the shelf as a piece of great literature to be used in high school classrooms. Instead, it is a classic portrayal of academia through the eyes of a graduate student in history. Even there, Lauren Willig’s first book was a more prototypical caricature of grad student angst while searching for the perfect dissertation topic. What appealed to me about this story were the little unnoticeable tidbits. The almost inside jokes – and I don’t know the author, nor do I purport to know what it is like to be a history grad student at Harvard.

What I do understand though is the humor in the way the author describes early eighteenth-century England and France. She has create a stereotypical romance story in many ways, but it is so cleverly crafted, self-deprecating, and over the top, that as a reader you know she has consciously poked fun at the entire genre and her own ability to write such a story. First and foremost, this book reminded me of many hours spent with my own classmates. One friend in particular has such a similar wit and sense of cynicism about her own historical era that I had to double check the author’s picture and biography on the back cover. I genuinely could believe that my friend had written this book instead.

While sitting on the couch cackling at the humor my husband asked me what was so funny. I tried to read passages of the book to him, but he didn’t see the humor. Instead he decried, “This proves that all female graduate students are sexually repressed.” What can I say; we spend so much time staring at dusty archives and ridiculously dry monologues that we need some outlet. And farcical, historical romance takes us to a world that we recognize, but that is nonetheless completely removed from our dry, academic studies.

The story is cute. It follows two timelines – one contemporary as Eloise searches the archives to find the identity of the Black Tulip, a French spy in England. The other through the eyes of Henrietta who, living in England during Napoleon’s reign, is also searching for the identity of the Black Tulip. It is not particularly deep. It is not particularly difficult to follow or guess at the outcome. But, it is witty. It is fun. It is refreshing. It is chick lit and traditional romance bound and tied up with the jaded wit of a historian who can make light readable academic puns about the time and place she studies.

1 comment:

Tim Griffith said...

The book is definitely all the things you claim in the last paragraph - it's tons of funny and not too weighty, but nevertheless perfect reading for all current and former female history PhD's!
Now, what I want to know is: who did you think could have written it?!?!?