The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy
The hunt for the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, an Englishman who becomes a hero amongst the French nobility - and a thorn in the side of its bloodiest elements - is afoot in this iconic novel, led by clever, beautiful Marguerite. She would rather preserve him than unmask him, but her brother's life is at stake, and with this sword hanging over her head, she undergoes a hunt that will prove full of surprises.
I haven't given this book a star rating because I feel as if I can't assign a useful number of stars - it is very much a product of its time. Besides, it's not as if the Baroness Orczy needs the publicity ...
That said, this book holds up very well for the modern reader: it is vivid, full of tension, misunderstandings, young love ... it paints an evocative portrait of the Pimpernel and his life and times.
Of course, it would be hard for a writer nowadays to get away with some of Orczy's devices. In particular, she starts with a broad view, narrowing in by association, rumor and the perspective of affected parties on the Pimpernel and Marguerite. It's very effective in building anticipation and expectations.
But Marguerite ... I couldn't tell how much of it was the times and how much of it was simply the character, but I had a lot of trouble with her. Her reason for initially loving her husband - she recognizes his simple nature, but is attracted by being adored - is shallow and hard to sympathize with. Her hard-headedness in refusing to explain / defend her mistakes is maddening. And then her so-called race to the rescue? She came off so ineffectual it made my eyes crossed. There were moments when she was lovely; there were moments when I wished the book was from someone else's perspective.
Overall, though, I think this novel holds up wonderfully, and I'd like to read more.
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