Publication date: January 2022
Category: Women’s Friendship Fiction
Review, short version: Four roses out of four.
Review, long version:
I recently read a novel that was the third – all within a month – that featured young women in what I would call unusual circumstances.
The first was Shoulder Season, about a 19-year-old American woman who becomes a Playboy bunny in 1981. I thought it was dreadful and didn’t finish it.
The second was The Show Girl, about an 18-year-old American woman in 1927 who joins the Ziegfeld Follies. I thought it, too, was dreadful, but I finished it because I was running out of books to read.
I was beginning to think novels about young women in what I would call unusual circumstances and I were not a good match.
The third was The Last Dance of the Debutante, about an 18-year-old English woman in 1958 who is among the select few to be presented to the queen as a debutante – the last time this antiquated ritual would take place.
This I not only finished, but I enjoyed it – very much.
Though not at first.
We meet “bookish” Lily Nicholls whose very distant Mummy and very critical Grandmama insist that she have a “season.” In Great Britain that meant a presentation to the queen, followed by endless rounds of parties (called “drinks”) and balls where Lily will meet other debutantes and more importantly, meet eligible bachelors (because the whole point of the season is to find a husband, preferably titled and rich).
Lily would rather not. Lily would rather be preparing for taking her entrance exams to attend Cambridge University.
But – she feels obligated to please Mummy and Grandmama, for reasons that will become clear.
So we join Lily on her introduction to “Society with a capital S,” as described in this article:
“These royal parties had once been the entire raison d’être of the London Season, that period between April and August when the elite and would-be elite came together at a glittering array of social and sporting occasions from opera to Ascot.
“A debutante’s presentation at court – the queuing, the nerves, the sovereign acknowledging the practiced curtsey with a glimmer of a smile before the deb was quickly moved on so that the performance could be repeated with the next girl, and the next, and the next – this was what marked a young woman’s coming out into Society with a capital S, her arrival on the marriage market, her transition to adulthood, and her admission to a privileged elite.”
From page one, I experienced two strong feelings:
One – how trivial all this debutante stuff was. I had to keep reminding myself the story was taking place 64 years ago, and to not view events of 1958 with my 2022 mindset.
Second – I disliked how Lily acquiesced to everything her mother and grandmother demanded. “Grow a spine!” I kept thinking.
But Lily didn’t need to grow a spine – she already had one. She just needed to use it. And when she does, she doesn’t hold back.
Part way into the Season, when her mother orders her not to associate with Leana, a new friend, Lily says:
“I’ve been presented. I’m going to teas and luncheons and drinks and dances. I’ll have the same conversations with the same people night after night. I’ll do whatever you and Grandmama ask of me to help advance myself as a debutante, but I will not stop seeing Leana Hartford…because I’m a woman now. I should be able to choose my own friends.”
Take that, Mama!
Lily’s journey through Society takes her on an unintended journey into her past, where she discovers things that shock her – and surprised me. I’m rarely surprised by plot twists, so when I am, it’s a definite plus.
Another plus – as I approached the denouement in The Last Dance of the Debutante, I couldn’t stop reading. As the saying goes, “I couldn’t put it down!”
I don’t remember the last time I felt that way about a book.
Hope you feel the same.