‘The Alice Network’ & The Responsibility of Authors to Depict Truth, Knowledge, and Reality in Literature

In taking the title of ‘author’, I feel one incurs a moral obligation to depict reality in a truthful and accurate way. Because, ultimately what happens is, I, as the reader, take whatever happened in my book as FACT and TRUTH and REALITY, and I assert those perceptions onto my construction and understanding of the world, and if an author is not truthful to me, as a reader, then that author has inaccurately informed my views. For example, in ‘The Prodigal Summer’, Barbara Kingsolver writes about raising goats in Appalachia, and as a person who has no knowledge of that task or location whatsoever, I lean on Kingsolver to be my expert; I trust that the knowledge she portrays about raising the goats is truthful, accurate, and real. Or, in “Into the Wild”, I expect that Jon Krakauer has done his research on poisonous berries, and the berries that Mr. McCandless eats must certainly have those dangerous properties (that I should avoid when I’m out in the wild). So, when I read a book, such as ‘The Alice Network’, I expect, also that the author (Kate Quinn) will provide me with an accurate, truthful, and realistic account of female spies during World War I–I place my trust in that as the author, she has done thorough research and is providing me with a reliable account. I feel, however, that the novel failed in this representation.

‘The Alice Network’, a best-selling novel by Kate Quinn, is a historical fiction novel which traces the lives of female spies during World War I; the novel shifts between 1915 (the time of The Great War) and 1947 (after World War II) to bring three unlikely characters together (Charlie St. Clair, a rich, white, unmarried pregnant girl from New York; Eve, a retired British spy; Finn, a former prison-goer from Scotland) as they join together to solve a ‘mystery’.

Sure, in order to be labeled a historical fiction novel, the author must do her research; she must locate real places, describe real fashion trends of the time, use real language translations, an accurate conversion of currency at the time, true things that occurred on true dates and times. These are all relatively simple Google-able details that construct the facade that the story line and the characters are ‘real life’, ‘real facts’, ‘real events that really happened’. It is true that the French call their ladies “mademoiselle”. It is true that Dior was a esteemed designer, and that the boys should tip their waitress a “shilling and six pence”, that Baudelaire DID say those quotes; Grasse, Tournai, and Limoges are real places; that female spies did exist.

But, what I think the author misses are the deep cultural roots and sentiments that cannot be discovered through a simple Google search (because the author is a history buff who resides in California in 2018–how could she possibly know how to represent the truth of European sentiments and culture during 1915 and 1947?).

I remember watching a news cast whilst in London, and the anchors were chuckling about how “American directors were plucking more and more actors from British acting schools” because “American acting schools were poor”, and I remember thinking, “How British”. Of course, the sentiment of being competitive with Americans, and that the Brits have better ‘more refined social tastes’ is culturally British, and would probably never be a ‘fact’ that we could Google, but rather, is a trait that must be picked up by being immersed in the culture.

This is where I feel ‘The Alice Network’ fails–it promises to take on the French/British perspective of the Great War, but still reflects the very limited American perspective: that the Allies are all good, and that the Germans are all bad. The problem here is that, as a reader, I’m expecting to read a historical fiction novel about real times, real people, real situations that really occurred, and I’m taking in this knowledge as factual, truth, reality, and use it to construct and inform my own knowledge of the world, so when I read these 2018-California perspectives, I assume that this must be how society thought, ran, engaged during 1915 & 1947, to which I build into my schemas of these people, these places, these events. Of course the Germans are bad–every German in the novel took advantage of women, abused innocent people in the streets, wasted food in times rationing and starvation. Of course the Scottish man would have gone to prison, but still have a kind soul underneath. Of course the female spy would have PTSD from her torture and of course she would be victorious when she (SPOILER ALERT) kills her torturer. But rarely is the truth of the world so black and white, so dichotomous, so simple. Did the Germans think they were bad and evil? Are all Scottish men sent to prison for unnecessary things? Do all spies end up with alcoholism, bad nightmares, and crappy attitudes due to PTSD after the war? Maybe not, but this is how truth is depicted to me in ‘The Alice Network’.

I also remember visiting a World War II museum in Paris and being so immersed in the French perspective of the war–my whole life, I’d grown up learning about World War II from an American perspective, and it never dawned on me that there was a different side to it–that another set of people might have different motives for fighting, different weapons and technological advancements they deem revolutionary, different battles seen as victorious, a different (and not necessarily heroic) view of the American armies. Because, in these times of war, doesn’t everyone think their side is “correct”? Doesn’t everyone want their side to “win”? Don’t we want our men and soldiers to take out “the enemy”? Doesn’t every country celebrate with a parade when they win a large battle (even if it means the Americans lost)?

The Alice Network’ lies is that the novel advertises itself to represent the story of a female spy during World War I, and while there may be some factual truths in Eve’s actions (the times and places in which she existed, the fashions of the time and the types of clothing she likely wore, the broken down and unreliable Lagonda automobile that Finn drives around), I can’t say that an American author in 2018 can accurately reflect the cultural complexities that rested in Europe during that time, and she fails her readers in building an accurate, truthful, and realistic scan of European culture–because I’m not certain this is actually how it was. I’m not certain that all Germans were bad, that all Scotts were misunderstood, and that being a female spy resulted in having your knuckles all broken. In reality, I think the truth of that historical account is a little more complicated than that, and I think Quinn fails her readers in that way.

(On a side note, I was also intrigued that the reviews raved about “strong female characters” who “overcome obstacles” and “seek revenge and justice”…like, isn’t Eve actually very broken? And, aren’t the obstacles Charlie overcomes (being pregnant, having a controlling mother, not knowing her life plan, etc.) resolved by fate in the end? And, should we REALLY root for character who (SPOILER ALERT) murder someone in the end?…)

2 Responses

  1. This was well said. Thanks, I appreciated reading it. Often it seems to me as if reviewers just praise these same old, same old standard markers, “strong female characters” who “overcome obstacles” and “seek revenge and justice.” I’ve gotten to the point where if I see those words I just roll my eyes and don’t even want to read it.

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