As we enter the final week of Pink Anniversary Month, we have a final guest post!
This one is from Jessica, whom I have now had the great privilege of knowing for nearly as long as there’s been a Pink series.
But I’ll leave that to Jessica to tell….
Summer, 2006…I was preparing to start a job taking students to Antibes, France, for a month and looking for reading material to take with me. I perused Borders’ “Buy 2, get the 3rd free” table and a book caught my eye…The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. I have always enjoyed historical fiction and romance but at that point in my life it was not the major part of my reading list. (I didn’t even know what “The Regency” was until I became involved with this community of Lauren’s readers!). In other words, I’m not sure what made me pick up the book…the lovely fine-art cover? The enticing title? The color pink? At any rate, I did pick it up and I turned it over. And I read the blurb…a graduate student doing research in London.
At that time I was four years into my own doctoral program, not at Harvard but at the University of Illinois; not in history, but in French and second language acquisition. While I don’t remember why I picked the book up, I remember very clearly the thought that went through my mind as I read that blurb and met Eloise Kelly for the first time: “Finally! A book about my people!” Never had I seen a novel about a graduate student. I couldn’t not buy it.
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation accompanied me on that trip to France. Pre-Kindle, the few books you took abroad with you, you re-read, even if you were only gone for a few weeks (at least if you read as quickly as I do!). I remember reading it in my un-air-conditioned bedroom, on the plane, in the Paris hotel. Even now, thinking of Pink I transports me back to the little apartment I shared with another trip chaperone, in that hot, dim upstairs bedroom, exhausted after a long day of teenagers and the southern France sun.
From the first page, when Eloise fell into a fellow Tube passenger’s lap, I was hooked. Not only did the historical story fascinate me, but the author actually got the graduate school part right! Despite the vast difference between the Ivy League and the Big 10, Eloise’s experiences resounded with me because I could see many of them happening to me. Her hours in Widener Library, my hours searching the various levels of UIUC’s Graduate Library (which I firmly believe were the inspirations for Dante’s levels of Hell); her search for primary sources, my struggle for participants; the uncertainty of Life After Humanities PhD. And, of course: the glory (struggle) and joy (pain) of teaching undergraduates.
Fast forward a few months, at a public library, in the W section. Lo and behold, there was another book by the same author…similar title: The Masque of the Black Tulip…ANOTHER BOOK! It’s a series! From there, I searched the internet for information on Lauren Willig…and I found this website, this community, and Lauren herself. It’s a magical aspect of the internet to be able to interact with our favorite authors, to connect with the minds that bring us the stories that captivate us. I adore reading outtakes, participating in contests to choose flower names or design mugs and tote bags, and hearing about Lauren’s upcoming projects.
Although Eloise and I have taken different paths ultimately, I continue to feel that Lauren wrote me a literary soul sister. I recognize myself in her struggles with her dissertation advisor, the ache of a long-distance relationship, and, again, Life After Humanities PhD. I recognize her anxiety and awkwardness and tendency to fall over, knock down, or bump into whatever there is around her. And we’re both redheads with curly hair. (When her blind date at the Indian restaurant questions a redhead named Kelly siding with the English over the Irish in The Deception of the Emerald Ring, I was reminded that I’m a French professor who is a dedicated reader of a series where the French are constantly insulted and thwarted).
Lauren and her books have seen me through dissertation-writing and defense, my visiting professor position, being hired on the tenure track at the same university, and through the tenure track as I await the final two votes for my promotion. Fortuitously, she always seems to have a book coming out when I need a reward to inspire me to finish a paper or project or just another semester of undergraduate teaching (The Other Daughter is coming out in June, in time for my birthday – thanks, Lauren!). In August 2008, I had just found out that a professor on my dissertation committee whom I particularly liked would have to participate remotely in my defense. I permitted myself an afternoon of total breakdown, in the form of re-reading The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, which had come out earlier that year. I read The Betrayal of the Blood Lily over ginger cats cookies and Indian food, wearing a pink scarf, in a fit of silly themed-ness during my first year on the tenure track. I’ve re-visited my favorite couples, Miles/Henrietta and Geoffrey/Letty, so many times that I fear for my copies of The Masque of the Black Tulip and The Deception of the Emerald Ring. As the tenure track dragged on, I had to abandon my habit of indulging in a full afternoon to read new books in one sitting, so The Garden Intrigue, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, and The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla have all been read in bits before bed, which gave me a chance to truly savor them.
From finding The Secret History of the Pink Carnation all those years ago, I’ve gained an online community I enjoy; an entrée and guide into the world of romance and historical fiction, along with the intellectual tools to defend the genre; and a smattering of botanical knowledge. Not to mention, of course, the gleaming row of books on my shelf with flower titles and pretty covers. And in Lauren and her generosity in her web presence, I’ve gained a friend who understands what my life was like in graduate school and wrote about it.
In French, there is a phrase that perfectly sums up my relationship with Lauren: lectrice inconditionelle, unconditional reader. If she writes, it I will read it. All because she wrote a novel about “my people.”
First of all, can we have a big cheer for Jessica for making it through and achieving tenure? Huzzah! And if the Pink books helped you to procrastinate– I mean motivate! Yes, motivate– your way through that, then I am very proud of the small role the Pink books have played in your success. Eloise salutes you. (And Miles offers a ginger biscuit.)
It means so much to me that the grad school experience in the books rang true. As a grad student, nothing maddened me more than books in which the heroine or hero was theoretically a grad student (often a Harvard grad student, since Harvard seems to occupy a peculiar place in the national imagination) and yet did very un-grad-student-like things, like completing an entire PhD in three years, hopping fields at will (an expert on the Italian Renaissance one day and Stuart England the next), or staying at the Georges Cinq.
I wanted a book that would speak to the real grad school experience (with a bit of, “hey! there’s a whole cache of never-before-seen papers!” wish fulfillment). I was fortunate, during the writing of this book, to have a phalanx of grad student friends who would sit with me at Burdick’s or Peets’ in Harvard Square and egg me on with suggestions like, “Oooh, oooh, add something about how advisors never reply to emails!” Or “What about when you go on dates and guys make snide comments about your field?”
To my grad school friends: I have tried, diligently, to incorporate all of those suggestions. If there were gripes I left out, Eloise and I both apologize.
It was the grad student element that drew Jessica to the books. What was it that captured your imagination?
One person who comments will be chosen at random to receive a Pink Anniversary Mug.
Also… I seem to have a number of unclaimed prizes piling up here! If you’ve contacted me about a prize and not received a response, please, please let me know in the comments. (In which case, I’ll know that something is wrong with my email and can fix it.)