A heady novel of love, intrigue and taking chances, Fiona McIntosh’s The Last Dance is a book made for reading in bed all night long. I’ve had this on my shelf for a while, but as I do sometimes, I left it for a while, wanting it for the right moment (I do that with chocolate, too). Once the pages started turning, I was quickly caught up in a pre-World War II Downton Abbey-esque world of drama, passion, snobbery and secrets. My kind of read!
The novel’s prologue foreshadows the story to come: Stella is mourning the death of her two parents in a suicide pact, her emotions fluctuating between grief, guilt, anger and despair. Her father killed himself because of guilt at having failed his family financially; her mother couldn’t bear to be without her husband.
Stella could not wrap her thoughts around such blind passion. She had never known a connection of that purity; couldn’t imagine losing herself so completely in the life of another. (p3)
Little does Stella know that passion is waiting around the corner for her … but will it end in heartbreak? Thinking about that deeper, did it end in heartbreak for Stella’s parents? Or only for Stella and her siblings, now orphaned? One to ponder.
A few months later, Stella meets the enigmatic Montgomery at a ballroom. Like many other women of the time, she supplements her income by selling dances; her unhappiness at being reduced to this, while a dance is all it is, is evident to Montgomery, who whisks her away for a cup of tea and suggests Stella consider the role of a governess to children of the wealthy. He farewells her with a kiss that lingers against her skin, “marking her with his tender touch”, and plenty to think about.
After some thought, she follows through on Montgomery’s suggestion and soon finds herself installed as a governess for the wealthy Ainsworth family at Harp’s End, Sussex. It’s a rude shock. Surly teenager Georgina makes no secret of her dislike of Stella, mother Beatrice is both insensitive and disdainful, and the staff aren’t exactly welcoming. Only young Grace, whose name reflects her nature, welcomes Stella. It’s a difficult enough transition for Stella, but the challenge is confounded when Douglas Ainsworth makes an appearance. Passive, stumbling and seemingly under his wife’s thumb, Douglas soon reveals another side of himself to Stella that she can’t help falling for, even though she knows it’s hopeless and can only lead to heartbreak.
Moving from the green hills of Kent to exotic, colourful Morocco over about eight weeks , Stella’s story builds to a tense climax as secrets are revealed, alliances are forged and international politics intervene. It’s in Morocco that she finally feels free to follow her heart, and she brushes aside a shadowy future, guilt and insecurity to live in the present, understanding finally what led to her parents’ terrible pact.
It was easier to ignore tomorrow and worry about making today special – perhaps the only time they may have alone in the foreseeable weeks – maybe months – until he could get his family life sorted and give her a glimpse at the future they hoped to share. (p327)
While the story is essentially about an affair, McIntosh does not judge or condone this, leaving readers to interpret the characters’ situations and actions in the light of a love that cannot be equalled.
Her characters develop well – in particular, Stella, who gains wisdom, compassion and forgiveness (and I suspect patience) over the period of the novel. Georgina is one of those characters readers love to hate (at times I thought she was a little overdrawn) – arguably, she’s a victim of her upbringing and her self-absorption and nastiness is a contrast to Stella’s more mellow approach. Not that Stella is meek – she’s assertive and at times snappy, with a tendency to speak first, think later, but without the bitter nastiness. The five-year gap in the narrative reveals a different side to Georgina and her younger sister that comes about as the result of maturity, disappointment and anger. It’s realistic, refreshing and sad at the same time. A romance it may be, but McIntosh does not hide her characters’ weaknesses even as she wants readers to love them for their strengths.
Beautiful storytelling, emotional depth and complex characters captivated me from start to finish in The Last Dance. It’s definitely one for my to-keep shelf. It didn’t quite reach the level of The French Promise and The Lavender Keeper for me, but it wasn’t far off.
Here’s a link to some reading notes for book clubs.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. My copy was courtesy of Penguin Books.
Author: Fiona McIntosh
Publisher: Michael Joseph
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