Review: The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

  • Title: The Rose Code
  • Author: Kate Quinn
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Intended Audience: Adult
  • Format: Audiobook ARC
  • Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
  • Publisher: HarperAudio
  • Trigger Warnings: grief, death, depictions of bombs, parental abuse, patient abuse, vomiting, straightjacket, mentions of rape, sexual assault
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I was provided with an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

1940. As England prepares to fight the Nazis, three very different women answer the call to mysterious country estate Bletchley Park, where the best minds in Britain train to break German military codes. Vivacious debutante Osla is the girl who has everything—beauty, wealth, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece sending her roses—but she burns to prove herself as more than a society girl, and puts her fluent German to use as a translator of decoded enemy secrets. Imperious self-made Mab, product of east-end London poverty, works the legendary codebreaking machines as she conceals old wounds and looks for a socially advantageous husband. Both Osla and Mab are quick to see the potential in local village spinster Beth, whose shyness conceals a brilliant facility with puzzles, and soon Beth spreads her wings as one of the Park’s few female cryptanalysts. But war, loss, and the impossible pressure of secrecy will tear the three apart. 1947. As the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip whips post-war Britain into a fever, three friends-turned-enemies are reunited by a mysterious encrypted letter–the key to which lies buried in the long-ago betrayal that destroyed their friendship and left one of them confined to an asylum. A mysterious traitor has emerged from the shadows of their Bletchley Park past, and now Osla, Mab, and Beth must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger–and their true enemy–closer…

This review honestly took me so long to write. And I wrote one back on my Goodreads when I first read the book, and this is slightly revised, but it still isn’t perfect. I found it weirdly difficult to encapsulate my thoughts about this book.

I absolutely loved Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, and I also happen to be really interested in code breaking and Bletchley. So to say I was excited for this book is an understatement. Of course, the issues with getting so excited for a book is that it’s nearly impossible to have your expectations met. So ultimately, I couldn’t quite give it 5 stars. I still liked it, but I definitely didn’t connect to it as deeply as I would have liked.

The Rose Code follows three young women, two timelines, and one deadly mystery. During World War II Osla, Mab, and Beth work at the mysterious Bletchley Park, the code-breaking center of Britain. They are working with highly classified information, and have to learn to keep the secret of what they really do. After the war, right on the eve of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, the three women must attempt to discover if there was a traitor among them at Bletchley, and crack the codes the find who.

I honestly did really enjoy this book. The execution of the dual timelines was fantastic. I think dual timelines can be really difficult, but the way Quinn used it was just so smart, thoughtful, and deliberate. She always kept the reader on their toes. Each timeline you would think you would know what was happening, and then a new piece of information would be revealed. The best part is, of course, when twists are delivered in one timeline that alter your perception of the other. I was convinced for most of the book that I knew exactly who the traitor was, until I realized that couldn’t be it, and had to completely re-asses. There are many other complete surprises. The plotline itself was a bit of a puzzle, which I appreciated in a book all about puzzles.

I also have to give the book immense credit for making me feel emotions so strongly. There were times where I was truly proud, angry, jubilant, and sad. Like, I had visceral emotional reactions, which is always amazing. What else do we read books for?

The Rose Code really does have a lot of amazing themes. It’s about friendship, and love, and family, and found family, and heartbreak, and starting over, and self love. So much of this book was just so beautiful. Mab has a speech about love that definitely made me cry. That’s what this book is ultimately about. All types of love. And as someone who enjoys my literature with optimism and love, I definitely appreciated it.

Representation was generally kind of lacking. All of the characters are white, and I definitely had the thought, “you know what would make this even better? Lesbians.” However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Beth was coded as autistic. Obviously they did not have the same language for things that we do now, but she didn’t like people touching her and didn’t enjoy crowds. She generally had a difficult time reading people. Other people often saw her as dumb, even though she was clearly very intelligent in certain ways (i.e. she is a brilliant code breaker). And she gets intensely focused on the work she is doing, so much so that she really doesn’t notice the things happening around her. It was pretty clear to me that she was autistic, or at least neurodivergent in some way.

As I am not an autistic person, I cannot say how well done it is. I can note that it really walks a fine line between showing other characters’ negative depictions of her, and how the book itself is actually depicting her. For example, even though she clearly is very smart, others often call her “stupid” or “dumb.” In the 1947 portion of the book, Beth is in an asylum. Not because of her autism, and Beth herself states many times that she shouldn’t be there. However, I do wonder how this will come off to readers, and how others will interpret it. I think Quinn could have been better of pushing back against other people’s perceptions of Beth within the narrative. Although they come around at the end, her friends often have difficultly and get extremely upset with her for things such as her black and white thinking, or for not paying attention to things besides work. The narrative could perhaps have supported Beth more by explicitly pushing back against some of this.

Finally, we get to why I feel like I can’t give it five stars. Really, it just comes down to 5 star books need the “it” factor for me. I didn’t connect to this book as much as I could have, and I think one reason why was the audiobook format I was using. Quite frankly, this book is too long to be an audiobook for me. I would have done better if I had just read the text. I chose to listen to it at normal speed, and it was like, 16 hours. It took me a week to finish it, and I was listening to it constantly. That is a really long time for me! It meant it took me longer to finish, and I couldn’t remember things as well as if I had read them. This was just an instance where the audiobook format caused a disconnect between me and the narrative, and I felt like I wasn’t able to immerse myself in it enough.

That being said, there are so many things I love about this book. It is so nice to see three very different female characters, each strong in her own way, forging friendships with each other. I could not choose a favorite character out of our three main women, I loved them all. They were just such strong characters, and just the kind of interesting, messy, intelligent women I like to see at the center of stories.

I would certainly recommend The Rose Code. It is a very character driven book that focuses a lot on human connection and different types of love. It also has a thread of mystery to keep it intriguing and suspenseful. However, if I were you, I might pick up the print version instead of the audiobook.

Have you read The Rose Code? What did you think? If not, does it sound like something you would enjoy? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading!

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