The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Powerful historical fiction around the women involved in Bletchley Park (the British code breaking center during WWII). Absolutely gripping and completely brought to life the absolute intensity of the time, environment, and activities of the place that many have credited with shortening the war by 2-4 years.

Quinn used three female characters to tell the story: Osla Kendall, an intelligent socialite who constantly fights against the label of “Dizzy Deb”; 6-foot tall Mab Churt, a working class girl from Shoreditch who strove to make a better life for herself; and Beth Finch, a complete mouse of a girl who had been told she was stupid her whole life, but who became one of the leading cryptanalysts at Bletchley. All three find that the work they end up doing is not only essential to the country and the war effort, but essential to their own sense of self and worth.

The story is told in a dual timeline: In 1940, each of the three finds herself at Bletchley and an entirely new world of code breaking, secrecy, independence and intense pressure opens up to them. In 1947 — two years after the war ended — the three women are not speaking to each other, one of them has been involuntarily committed to an institution, the Royal Wedding is afoot, and there is a dangerous traitor from the Bletchley time that has never been caught. I was fascinated by every part of the 1940 timeline though it ran me through the wringer in terms of emotion, stress, and an all too real depiction of life during wartime. Quinn did a fantastic job of illustrating all the different work in Bletchley from breaking the codes, to running the (massive and complicated) machinery, to simply administrating the communication needs of a bustling, yet intensely secretive, organization. It’s a good reminder of what life was like before computers and smart phones! I loved the detail, both of the mechanisms and how the women coped with challenges they had never been expected to face before. Plenty of sexism, as one might expect, but also plenty of opportunity for women to shine due to both the need and the utter unorthodoxy of the place, teeming, as it was, with “weirdos” and “nerds” who had the right kind of brains for this odd work. In her afterward, Quinn describes the real-life models for her characters and for the events and plot points she included. Although I found some of the story to be more dramatic than I like, she convinced me that everything included could and did happen. Make sure you read the afterword!

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