CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Lauren Willig’s academic adviser laughed when she told him why she enrolled in Harvard’s graduate history program: to write a historically accurate romance novel.
She wasn’t joking.
Willig, in her second year at Harvard Law School, is finishing her doctoral dissertation on the Royalists during England’s 17th-century civil war. She’s also the author of “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation,” a “bodice-ripper” that’s been climbing Barnes & Noble’s best seller list less than a month after its release.
It seems a natural progression for a woman who got in trouble in the third grade for bringing a trashy romance novel to school. Then, at age 9, she mailed her manuscript to a publisher. Willig traces her infatuation with the romance genre to when she was 6 and her father, also a historian-turned-lawyer, gave her a book about Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.
“I was utterly hooked,” says the slender blonde, who looks younger than her 27 years. “Every young girl wants to be a princess. Then, when you find a real-life one, it’s very easy to imagine yourself in that role.”
Willig has been juggling ideas for a romance novel since childhood, but she didn’t start writing “Pink Carnation” until the summer after her second year of graduate school. It was a reward to herself for passing her exams. The work carried over to the following summer. She had a job in the history department’s library, where she spent time writing dialogue for her book.
She mined her academic research for her novel’s plot. Her heroine, Eloise Kelly, a brainy Harvard graduate student, travels to London to finish her dissertation on “Aristocratic Espionage During the Wars With France: 1789-1815” — and to escape a cheating boyfriend. There, she finds manuscripts detailing the (fictional) exploits of French Revolutionary-era English spies such as the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation, “the most elusive spy of all time, who saved England itself from Napoleon’s invasion.”
The book bounces back and forth between 19th-century and present-day England, allowing Willig to mix in aristocratic courtship rituals with modern dating observations.
Eloise, for example, professes to suffer from LIPID (Last Idiot Person I Dated) syndrome, “a largely undiagnosed but pervasive disease that afflicts single women.”
“As everyone knows, lipids are fats, and fats are bad for you, and therefore ex-boyfriends must be avoided at all costs,” Willig writes.
Willig didn’t have to wait long to get her book published. Two years ago, a friend gave her manuscript to an agent at Carlisle & Company, who shopped the book around to publishers. Less than two months later, it was snapped up by Dutton, a division of Penguin Group, Inc.
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Laurie Chittenden, Willig’s editor at Dutton, said the novel is a unique marriage of “chick lit” and serious fiction.
“There is a perception that romance novels aren’t intelligent books, that the only people who read them are stay-at-home moms. That just isn’t the case,” Chittenden said.
“Pink Carnation” is proof that the genre has outgrown its reputation for paperbacks adorned with airbrushed photos of Fabio.
“The field seems to be undergoing an expansion,” Willig says. “Mine is sort of on that uneasy cusp between what you call a traditional romance novel and more mainstream historical fiction.”
One of her history professors, Steven Ozment, said he encouraged Willig to parlay her research into a novel.
“Most historians here have quite a range,” he said. “Academics can write a substantive, scholarly piece or they can write historical fiction. They can soup it up, tart it up.”
Despite the success of “Pink Carnation,” Willig has no plans to become a full-time novelist. She is interviewing for summer law jobs in her native New York City and plans to become a litigator once she graduates from law school.
Willig calls her dizzying career path a “family curse.” Her parents both traded in doctorates to practice law, and her mother also is an author.
Her father, Ken Willig, said he didn’t hesitate to feed his daughter’s thirst for romance novels as far back as elementary school. “Our theory is that if a child reads even toilet paper, it’s great,” he said. “I’m not a history snob. I will read anything with a historical context.”
Willig’s next novel is scheduled to be published later this year — she only has three more chapters to write for the sequel to “Pink Carnation,” called “Masque of the Black Tulip.”
She’s also thinking about writing a murder mystery set at Yale University, her alma mater, or a “Nancy Mitford-like” social satire.
For now, though, she is savoring the giddiness of being a newly published writer. She still does a double-take when she sees her novel on the shelves of Harvard Square bookstores.
“It still feels fake,” she says. “It’s shocking to me that people who don’t know me are reading my book.”