Title: The Rose Code
Author: Kate Quinn
Rating: 5/5 stars
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 was one of the best books I’ve read all year! I loved The Alice Network by the same author, but The Rose Code was even better. It follows the story of three young women during World War II, best friends who each do their part to break German codes at Bletchley Park. Best friends, that is, until the weight of secrecy and betrayal strains their friendship to a breaking point. I thought telling the story with two timelines was really clever, as it built up the suspense of how all the characters got to where they were and how their relationships had changed between 1940 and Queen Elizabeth’s royal wedding in 1947. There is also the lingering fear of a possible traitor who was never found out, and whether they are still causing harm from the shadows…
Although all three of the main characters couldn’t be more different, I admired and loved them all. Mab is ambitious, strong-willed, and didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so while she works the code-breaking machines, she aims to find a wealthy husband to financially support her family and hide a big secret from her past. Osla is a well-born and charming lady who wants to prove that she is more than just an ex-debutante, and contributes to the war effort as both a mechanic and a German translator. Beth is a shy but brilliant young woman who doesn’t think much of herself until Mab and Osla find her a job as a cryptanalyst and help her stand up to her overbearing mother. All three women have romantic entanglements that are strained by their oath of secrecy about their work at Bletchley Park. Still, the focus of all of three women’s stories is on their strength, resourcefulness, and friendship.
As a woman getting a STEM PhD, I feel like these code-breaking and intelligent women paved the way for the rest of us to have jobs where we could use our minds and be respected instead of being thought of as either hysterical or delicate. Although the book makes clear that women had many crucial contributions to the war, this book also doesn’t shy away from the severe misogyny of the time, including the horror of lobotomies to make women with “bad temperaments” more calm and obedient. It also captures a lot of the horror and scars of war from many different perspectives, while still portraying those characters as more than their wounds.
There were a lot of fun historical tid-bits in this book, and a lot of the most surprising ones were actually based in reality. The most interesting one was that Prince Phillip really was in a relationship with a socialite named Osla who worked as a translator at Bletchley Park before he became the Duke of Edinburgh. At first I didn’t even realize that the naval officer Phillip was the same person! Some other minor characters were also real people involved in the war effort: Alan Turing, who invented the bombe machine used to decode encrypted messages, and Dilly Knox, a cryptographer whose team really did include many women and decoded many of the important transmissions described in the book.
I cannot recommend this book enough!