The story revolves around three very different women who become friends after they begin working on code breaking at the Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England during World War II. Mab (rather than Mable) Churt was born and raised in a cramped flat with a shared bathroom in Shoreditch in London's East End. Wanting more out of life than what her mother settled for, Mab worked hard to self-educate, reading the classics and she had even come in tops in typing and shorthand. Now, with war, she was ready to do her part for king and country.
Osla Kendall's upbringing couldn't be more different than Mab's. A society debutante, her mother hadn't really wanted her around, and had shipped her off to cousins in Canada. Now, Osla was back in London and dating a navy lieutenant named Philip Mountbatten (formerly Prince Philip of Greece). But once her mother cut off her allowance, Osla realizes she needs a job. Thanks to a German governess, Osla can speak fluent German and Philip suggests she use that skill to help the war effort.
After having mysterious interviews in London, Mab and Osla meet on the train the Bletchley, and instantly become friends, having received almost identical and very mysterious letters telling them where to go once they arrive.
After another interview and signing the Official Secrets Act, the two women are taken to the Finch home where they will board while working at Bletchley. There, they meet Bethan Finch, the 23-yer-old daughter of their nosy, overbearing and overly critical landlady, Mrs. Finch. Meek and shy, Beth might have been beaten down by her mother, but she also is a whiz at crossword puzzles, able to finish the Sunday crossword in eight minutes. As Mab and Osla get settled into their respective jobs at Bletchley, they become more aware of what is going on in the Finch household, including the way Mrs. Finch abuses Beth. Thanks to Osla, Beth is soon working in Bletchley for expert cytologist Dilly Knox.
Though Beth has always been shy and withdrawn, she shines at her job breaking codes at Bletchley. She even joins the book club that Mab and Osla start for the workers there. Then, on June 5th, 1944, as Beth is working on a difficult cipher file she had come to think of as Rose because the short messages reminded her of the way a rose's petals wrap it, she discovers that there was a traitor at Bletchley, but no matter what she says, no one believes her. The next day, as the Normandy Invasion was taking place, Beth finds herself committed to Clockwell Sanitarium for a supposed nervous breakdown.
Now, it's 1947 and Beth is facing a lobotomy and desperately trying to get her former friends, Mab and Osla to come to her rescue. If they could decipher the Rose Code, they could expose the Bletchley traitor. But would they come? And if not, why not?
The Rose Code is a long, detailed, multi-layered novel and I couldn't put it down. The three main characters are so clearly defined and so deliciously flawed, as different from one another as they are united in their desire to do their part for the war effort. I loved the inclusion of real people like Dilly Knox and Prince Philip and even a mention of Alan Turing, but the other minors characters also fit the story so well. In fact, I became invested in everyone's story very quickly (even the horrible, abusing Mrs. Finch). Bletchley itself is so well depicted it felt like another character instead of just the place that brought everyone together for the sake of the story.
Beth, Mab, and Osla's stories unfold in alternating chapters, as well as in chapters where they all play a part. And the narrative covers two timelines - the war years, while the women were working at Bletchley, and 1947. Actually, 1947 covers only the weeks leading up to the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (yup, Osla's old love interest).
The Rose Code is a sophisticated, well plotted, well researched and well written novel My only objection is that I didn't really get why the traitor did what they did. I didn't like the character, but I also didn't suspect them yet I wasn't surprised when I found out who they were.
The Rose Code was one of ten winning titles for ALA's 2021 Alex Award - adult books that also have appeal for young adult readers ages 12-18.
This book was purchased for my personal library.