BOOK ENDS: Grad Student Grabs Readers With Bodice-Ripper

Dissertation writer emerges from Widener carrels to pen tale of espionage

At a small table in Eliot Square’s Cafe Paradiso Sunday afternoon, sixth-year doctoral student Lauren J. Willig is sipping a latte and marking up a thick sheaf of papers with red ink. But she’s not poring over the rushed contentions of a new batch of undergraduate midterms, or a draft of her dissertation on British history of the Tudor-Stuart period, or even a judicial opinion for her second year at Harvard Law School.

No, Willig is engrossed in the twists and turns in the latest manuscript of her second historical romance novel—The Masque of the Black Tulip.

“Right now the book time has been sucking up the time I had slated for dissertation writing,” she says with a shrug.

Willig’s debut novel, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, was published in February to strong sales. The light-hearted page-turner flits daringly between the present day and Napoleonic France, where disguised espionage is as common as bodice-ripping passion.

The racing, racy historical narrative is driven by plucky characters with dual lives like 20-year-old Amy Balcourt, a.k.a. The Pink Carnation, who abandons a peaceful life in the British countryside to avenge her guillotined aristocrat father. Witty, rapier-wielding Lord Richard Selwick, a foppish Egyptologist at home in England, ventures into Bonaparte’s sanctum and dons the dashing mask of The Purple Gentian to save fair Brittania—and win Balcourt’s quivering Regency-era heart.

CRIMSON HISTORY?

Even the most novice sleuth could identify this plot as the work of an experienced pen—and, sure enough, Willig has been sharpening her quill since she was nine. At that tender age, she wrote her first novel, The Night the Clock Struck Death, a noirishly-titled mystery which was summarily rejected by Simon and Schuster upon submission.

Willig wasn’t discouraged. She persisted to produce countless pages through her teenage years.

Instead of setting off for French dungeons after high school, she went to New Haven. By the time she graduated from Yale, Willig knew she wanted to be a novelist—but her love of the written word wasn’t enough to sell her on a starving artist’s life.

“I knew I wasn’t brave enough to just live in a garret,” Willig explains.

And so, at first glance, Willig may bear a bit more resemblance to Eloise Kelly, who, as Carnation’s prologue opens, has just left a stuffy carrel in modern Widener Library for a year of fortuitously-fruitful historical research in London. But for the last three years, Willig has led her very own many-faceted life, fitting her novelistic pursuits into a bifurcated academic schedule of history and law.

Willig entered Harvard’s history doctoral program in 1999. But before long, the literary strain in her soul began to make itself heard once more.

“I hadn’t realized quite how intense the first few years of grad school would be,” she laments now. “When you’re being assigned 40 books a week…there’s not much room for novels.”

But, she says with a smile, “The long summer vacations are a boon.”

After two grueling years of studying history, then, Willig used just such a break to begin the work which became Carnation.

“I had promised myself I would start a novel after I finished my [general exams], as a kind of present to myself,” she says.