Sometimes truth is more interesting than fiction. Sometimes fictionalizing the truth—books based on a true story, if you will—helps highlight true stories that have yet to receive their due. History is seldom boring. The Rose Code is that type of historical fiction. Set primarily in Bletchley Park during the Second World War, this book is not about the genius of Alan Turing or Dilly Knox. It’s about love and sex and betrayal. Kate Quinn follows three women who become close friends only to be torn apart. It’s a perfect, dramatic mix of spy thriller and romance.
Osla, Mab, and Beth are three very different Englishwomen. Osla, technically Canadian (the best kind of being Canadian), is high society yet determined to prove she is more than a “dizzy deb[utante].” Mab is working class yet determined to climb that social ladder. Beth is a village girl, raised sheltered and never allowed to flourish. All three of them end up working at Bletchley Park, helping in various ways to crack codes and translate German messages. As the war drags on, they face personal challenges. Meanwhile, Quinn feeds us chapters set in 1947, on the eve of the royal wedding of Elizabeth and Philip. One of the three women has ended up in an asylum, framed, and now she has appealed to the other two for help. But their friendship ended long ago, on D-Day. If they don’t reconcile, a spy who operated out of Bletchley Park might continue to walk free.
The differences among our three protagonists is key to the success of The Rose Code, at least for me. I love how Quinn gives each of them such distinct motivations, personalities, etc. Firstly, it helps reify the setting—though England remains very stratified, WWII certainly changed much in terms of social mobility, particularly for women and the nature of marriage. Secondly, it makes the falling out among Osla, Mab, and Beth that much more understandable and realistic. The actual reasons they each have for souring on the others seem a bit trivial—but isn’t that how it goes? Aren’t we all capable of undeserved or unexpected spitefulness, especially when emotions are running high?
This book just gave me so many feelings for these three. I related quite a bit to Beth. Though my childhood was much happier than hers, I share her mathematical inclinations. Quinn has clearly written her to be neurodivergent, possibly autistic. I love the character development that Beth undergoes as her work at Bletchley Park draws her out from the mask she built in her mother’s home. I also sympathized a lot with Mab and her fierce desire for independence. Osla was probably the character with whom I identify the least—so it is all the more impressive that Quinn had me caring for her and understanding her need not to be written off as a high-society bimbo.
The code-breaking setting of the story also feels quite real, thanks to the intense amount of research Quinn put into it. The chapters are tight, paced in such a way that I really didn’t want to put this book down. Quinn carefully balances historical events, up to and including the end of the war and Elizabeth’s wedding, with the need for smaller stakes and antagonists within the reach of our protagonists. The bad guy in this book is not particularly interesting, I grant you, but he’s sufficient for Osla, Mab, and Beth to grab on to as an enemy. The stakes here are less about losing a war and more about losing one’s friendship, perhaps one’s life…. (Lobotomies sound terrifying!)
In the hands of another author, The Rose Code easily could have become a huge mess. I didn’t know exactly what to expect going in, but I’m glad that I finally found my way back to Kate Quinn. This book has so many different entry points I can see it appealing to a broad variety of readers. It was a really pleasant way to say goodbye to the final days of my summer reading on my deck.