January 31, 2021

Book Review

The Rose Code

Kate Quinn

reviewed by Barbara Saffer


The Rose Code follows three young women who worked at England’s Bletchley Park, a country estate converted to a code-breaking facility during World War II. Employees at Bletchley Park deciphered encrypted Nazi communications, providing vital information to the Allies.

The story alternates back and forth between the war years 1940 to 1945—when England was imperiled, and the postwar year 1947—when Britain was agog over the upcoming marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

The main characters are Osla Kendall, a beautiful wealthy socialite with ties to the royal family; Mab Church, a go-getter who grew up poor, but means to better herself; and Beth Finch, an unsophisticated country girl who’s bullied by a selfish mother. 

In 1940, Osla and Mab meet on the train to Bletchley Park, which has recruited them for war work. After accepting their positions and signing the Official Secrets Act, the girls are billeted at the Finch family home, where they meet Beth. Though Beth is almost pathologically reclusive, Osla and Mab note her facility with puzzles, and Beth is soon working at Bletchley Park as well.

Each of the girls is assigned to a different unit. Osla’s fluency in German eventually lands her a translation job; Mab maintains the Bombe machines used to decipher messages encoded with German Enigma devices; and Beth is a gifted cryptanalyst with an almost preternatural ability to decode covert transmissions.

Working and living together fosters close friendships among Osla, Mab, and Beth. This camaraderie is important because the ladies are forbidden to talk about their jobs to outsiders, and must tell family and friends they’re file clerks. The women can be more honest amongst themselves, but are nevertheless prohibited from revealing classified information even to each other.

The work at Bletchley Park is difficult and stressful, and England is being bombed by the Luftwaffe, but the girls still manage to have some fun and search for romance. Mab meets a war poet, Beth gets involved with a fellow cryptanalyst, and Osla dates Prince Philip, who’s an eligible bachelor in the early 1940s.

Skip to 1947, and Osla, Mab, and Beth are angry, estranged, and haven’t spoken since the end of the war. Beth is a mental patient in Clockwell Sanatorium; Mab has a husband and children; and Osla is preparing to attend the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Osla is hurt by Philip’s engagement to another woman, but knows she must present a brave face and carefree attitude.

As the royal nuptials approach, Osla and Mab each get a letter from Beth. Beth claims she discovered a traitor at Bletchley Park, who—fearing exposure—got her committed to Clockwell asylum. Beth writes that Osla and Mab ‘owe her,’ and asks them to get her out so she can expose the Judas.

The book contains fascinating details about England breaking Nazi codes, leading to the discovery of German plans. The Brits then have to use the information in a way that doesn’t alert the enemy to the exposure of their secrets. There are also appearances by real historical figures, including naval admiral Lord Mountbatten, codebreaker Dilly Knox, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, computer scientist Alan Turing, Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, and others.

This compelling and suspenseful historical novel is an excellent example of the genre. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Netgalley, Kate Quinn, and William Morrow Publishers for a copy of the book.

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