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The Rose Code

By Kate Quinn



Book review and synopsis for The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, A WWII story about female code breakers at Bletchley Park.

Synopsis

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn is a book about three female code breakers -- Osla, Mab and Beth -- at Bletchley Park during WWII. The women form a friendship (and a book club) over the years, but a betrayal and traitor among their colleagues lands one of them in locked up in an asylum in the years after the war. But through a letter carefully smuggled out, she's able to issue a cry for help from her confinement.

In this exciting and enthralling tale, The Rose Code tells the story of their friendship, their work and their disappointments and triumphs.

(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)

Detailed Plot Summary

Section-by-Section Summary
See the Section-by-Section Summary of The Rose Code
Quick Plot Summary

The one-paragraph version of this: Three women (Beth, Osla, Mab) work on various aspects of codebreaking in Bletchley Park ("BP") during WWII. Beth learns there is a traitor at BP, but she gets hauled off to an asylum so that she can't report it. The womens' friendship also splinters at the end due to Beth not warning the others (because they take an oath of secrecy) about a raid that kills Mab's husband and child. Years later, Beth calls upon the other women for help to get her out before she's scheduled for a lobotomy. Together, and by calling in a bunch of former BP cryptographers as reinforcements, they get Beth out and decode the messages (the titular Rose Code) needed to identify and arrest the traitor.


In 1947, years after WWII, two women are contacted by a third woman, Beth Finch, who has been institutionalized in the Clockwell Sanitarium. Beth says she knows they hate her, but she needs their help. She claims a traitor set her up to declared crazy when she discovered proof of their treason. She asks them to come rescue her.

Back in 1940, Osla Kendall, 18, and Mab Churt, 21, are women who get recruited to work at Bletchley Park ("BP") at the Government Code & Cypher School. Collectively, they work on decoding German communications that have been encrypted with variations of a cipher device called the Enigma machine. Their work is highly secretive and revealing anything is considered treason.

Osla is an upper-class debutante, who starts seeing Prince Philip of Greece just before he ships off to war and she goes to BP. Mab comes from humble means, where she lives with her mother and much younger sister, Lucy, 4. At BP, Osla starts off doing secretarial work, but moves into translating German. Mab works in the decoding room (where they punch in messages to be decoded) and later works on running machines that test out settings to decode messages, called bombe machines.

Osla and Mab are billeted at the house of the Finches, where they meet Beth, 26, who lives with her parents. Beth soon gets recruited into BP to work with Dilly Knox's team of female cryptographers, doing extremely challenging decryption work. The three women bond over books and start a literary society, which they name the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Eventually, Osla and Mab help Beth to stand up to her overbearing and manipulative mother, and the three move into a flat together.

As time passes, Beth eventually gets involved with a man named Harry Zerb, who is legally married but he and his wife are only together for the sake of the child. Osla continues to see Philip, but she's told to break things off with him due to his Nazi familial connections. Soon after, there's rumors of Philip and Princess Elizabeth being romantically linked. One night when she is in London, Osla ends up in the midst of an air raid, and she is helped by a man who gives her his overcoat. She later finds the name "J. P. E. C. Cornwell" in the coat's lapel. Meanwhile, Mab meets and marries a good and loving man, Francis Gray. She's also able to reveal to him that Lucy is actually her daughter, not her sister, and he is supportive.

In November 1942, Mab and Francis are set to move to Coventry with Lucy, and Osla will be visiting, too, to help with Lucy. Beth deciphers a message about an upcoming air raid in Coventry, but does not say anything as it's against the rules to share details of their work. When the sirens go off, Osla accidentally lets go of Lucy's hand and she runs off. As soon as Francis finds Lucy, a bomb falls before they can make it to a shelter, and both Francis are Lucy are killed.

Mab blames Osla for their deaths, fracturing their friendship, and Mab drinks excessively following Francis's death. Around the same time, Dilly, Beth's mentor and supervisor, dies of cancer. Beth sees that Dilly's last project was trying to crack a Soviet Enigma code, and she's determined to finish deciphering it.

By June 1944, the tides of the war have turned, and the Invasion of Normandy is planned. Beth finally cracks the Soviet cipher (which she nicknames the Rose Code based on it's complicated structure), only to learn from it that there was a traitor in their midst. However, before she can report her findings, Beth is denounced by someone as having broken down mentally and is taken to the Clockwell Sanitarium. Osla and Mab have also just learned that Beth knew about the Coventry raid and in their anger and feelings of betrayal, they fail to defend Beth vigorously when questioned about her. Beth is locked up for the next three and a half years.

By November 1947, Beth manages to get the messages asking for help out to Osla and Mab. Osla is now engaged and working as a magazine columnist. Mab is married with two kids. Meanwhile, Beth is scheduled to have a lobotomy performed which happens to be the day after the royal wedding between Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth. Giles Talbot, one of the BP cryptographers and their friend from the book club, comes to see Beth and admits that he was the traitor. He says he can get her out, but will only do it if Beth agrees to turn over any evidence she has of his treason. Beth refuses. He says she has until the lobotomy to change her mind.

With a little over a week before the lobotomy is scheduled, Osla and Mab finally show up to Clockwell. They talk to Beth and realize she is telling the truth, though Osla is shocked by the revelation because Giles is her fiancé. Still, by causing a distraction and stealing a set of keys, they help her to escape. From there, they need to get evidence that affirmatively identifies Giles as the traitor before he learns Beth has escaped (which he'll know when he checks in on her the day of her scheduled lobotomy). They retrieve the rest of the files encrypted with the Rose Code, and Beth gets to work on decoding it.

With only a few days left, Mab gets the idea to call Beth's old cryptography colleague, Harry, who had believed her to be dead. Harry calls in a bunch of other people and soon one of them is able to get access to the machinery they need, a bombe machine and an Enigma machine. They bring in a bombe technician that turns out to be Mab's husband, and they realize they've both been keeping their histories secret due to the oath of secrecy they took.

The cryptographers crack the code and they get the evidence they need against Giles just after midnight on the day of the royal wedding. After an extended interlude, they are able to apprehend Giles, though everyone gets arrested. Osla happens to be wearing Mr. Cornwell's coat (which she kept all these years), so he gets called in (the police assume he is her husband) and they finally meet again. Osla then phones her ex-beau, Prince Philip, to help untangle this mess.

In the end, Beth is free and back together with Harry. She also has an offer to continue working on codebreaking for the government. Mab and her husband are able to have a closer relationship now that they know about each others' pasts. And Osla marries Mr. Cornwell and pursues a career as a magazine columnist. The book ends with the announcement of Bletchley Park reopening (as a tourist destination) in 2014.

For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.

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Book Review

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn was a must-read for me. I’m picky when it comes to WWII novels (there’s so many of them!), but I felt sure Quinn could find a way to tell a story about it that was worth reading.

The code-cracking intrigues at Bletchley Park are one aspect of that time period that I find particularly fascinating, involving people who did highly classified work to decode encrypted German communications. Kate Quinn focuses her story on a trio women that were working there, who are all fictional but based on real people.

The Rose Code is a book full of history, drama and romance. Quinn does a great job of blending history and fiction together to write this page-turner. I’m someone who tends to be wary of long books, and The Rose Code kept me wanting to keep reading page after page. It’s unlikely you’d get through it in one sitting, but it’s so eventful, fun and full of drama that it still feels like a fairly breezy story.

I thought this book was pretty delightful. It’s largely an upbeat and up-tempo book, starring a cast of vivacious and witty main characters. From cute dogs to handsome men and lots of carefully researched details about the intricacies of the work these women did, The Rose Code delivers all the way through.

If you’ve watched The Imitation Game, The Rose Code will be a little easier to visualize. I think Quinn does a great job explaining what’s going on, but cryptology is naturally kind of complicated and some of the machinery involved is stuff it’s easier to see to understand (in terms of what’s being plugged in and what dials are being moved, etc). Plus, it’s a good movie, and it explains a lot about the process of cracking the German Enigma machine, whereas The Rose Code picks up after the Americans have already figured out the contours of it. So, the two stories book-end each other quite nicely.

The Rose Code also features Prince Philip prominently as a character. Just as I finished reading this book, the actual Prince Philip passed away. He’s given a rather nice story arc in The Rose Code, so if you’re looking for a way to commemorate him in fiction, reading this book is an enjoyable way to do so. Of course, I think The Rose Code probably presents a rather, erm, overly generous version of his character, but whatever.

Read it or Skip it?

If you like historical fiction, Kate Quinn has penned yet another thrilling and fun drama. As mentioned previously, you might consider watching The Imitation Game before reading it. The two things bookend each other nicely, and it’ll help to visualize some of the machinery mentioned in the book.

But even without watching the movie, The Rose Code is such a fantastic and enthralling historical tale. The Author’s Notes are well worth a read as well, since Quinn takes the time to clarify which parts of the novel are factual or based off of records, documentation and real people.

What do you think, is this something you’ve read or considering reading? See The Rose Code on Amazon.

The Rose Code Audiobook Review

Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld
Length: 15 hours 39 minutes

The audiobook for The Rose Code is solid. The narrator talks crisply and clearly.

Hear a sample of The Rose Code audiobook on Libro.fm.

Discussion Questions

  1. Quinn touches upon a number of obstacles for women in the 1940’s, such as not having access to contraceptives unless you were engaged, which have thankfully now changed. What are some examples from the book, and what did you think when you came across these things?
  2. How does Beth’s character change from when we first meet her to a few years down the line when she is an experienced cryptographer and then to when she’s in the sanitarium? Why do you think she changes so drastically over the course of the book?
  3. What did you think of Beth’s decision not to tell Mab and Osla about the Coventry raid? She also refuses to compromise when it comes to giving the traitor what they want, even if it means getting stuck in the sanitarium. However, she’s fine with asking Osla to give her confidential information (about the Fleet Air planes). What do you think her reasoning is, and do you think her decision-making is consistent?
  4. What did you think of Giles’s argument that it was the right thing for him to share information with their allies if he disagreed with the decisions that were being made at the top? Does the fact that he got paid for sharing information affect what you think? Or the fact that it was illegal? What do you think about his argument just “following orders” is what resulted in “Good” Germans committing war crimes?
  5. Which of the characters in the book did you enjoy reading about the most and why? What is it about that character or their story that appeals to you?
  6. What did you think about Beth’s relationship with Harry? Did that relationship bother you or did you think it was the right thing for Beth?
  7. Of the relationships in the book, which one were you rooting for the most?
  8. In the Author’s Notes, Quinn describes some of what was fact and what was fiction. Did any part of this surprise you?

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of The Rose Code

Movie / TV Show Adaptation

See Everything We Know About the 'The Rose Code' Adaptation

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