The Last Dance of the Debutante
Once upon a time, it was de rigueur for society misses to be presented to the queen, an event which marked their entrée into society and the beginning of their Season, during which they would hopefully find a marriageable prospect.
By 1957, the concept is seen as fairly antiquated, and is ready to be phased out by Queen Elizabeth II, and the announcement that the presentations of 1958 will be the final ones sends society women into a scramble. The Last Dance of the Debutante follows three very different girls as they prepare to enter society at that final presentation. Sadly, the book’s presentation is a bit mediocre, providing a just-all-right experience. Think of it as Game of Thrones – but with cocktail parties.
Sheltered Lily Nichols’ mother is no different from the rest of the crowd. Lily’s sly, society-obsessed.grandmother and appearance-obsessed perfectionist mother had both been presented to the queen before her, and Lily will join their number – even though she’s ambivalent about the things herself. Lily herself is your everyday modern teenager, but she finds herself surviving the season and even making friends in the group of similarly placed young women. Unfortunately her socially ambitious mother tries to push her away from education and toward meeting the ‘right’ sort of people.
She is soon joined by two fellow debs. Leana Hartford – a diplomat’s daughter whom Lily’s mother does not want her to associate with for secretive reasons, whose drinking and possessive friendship becomes a problem as the season goes on – and Katherine Norman, whose father made his money in newspapers and whose American mother appears to be a social climber. Katherine is planning on attending graduate school and beginning a career after making her parents happy by situating herself in society. In a whirl of crinoline, chiffon and champagne, the girls play social chess, overindulge, experience first love and learn awful secrets about their parents. With the 1960s barely peeking over the horizon and new roles slowly becoming possible for women, will Lily pick the path her mother has set out for her? Or will she forge a new one.
The Last Dance of the Debutante has an atypical late-book plot twist and some pretty memorable lines of dialogue going for it – I can’t reveal the twist, but it’s the most interesting revelation and brings on the book’s most pertinent changes for Lily. I liked Katherine as a secondary character, and appreciated Lily’s coming of age story.
Kelly makes some good points about the restrictive nature of the upper crust of British society. The book does, however, have a somewhat willfully naïve point of view about how latent feminism in young women in the late 1950s and early 1960s was treated by society. Feminism was barely a whisper in the ear of women worldwide; marriage and children were expected, and while those who combined careers and families were becoming more common, they were usually seen as outliers. The book is kind of blithe about this historical reality. Kelly leans on the notion that Everything Changed For Women During World War II, while ignoring that the fifties and much of the sixties changed them right back. Its characters have a chirpy, clairvoyant sense of rebellion that tells them their pursuit of careers will be rewarded, as if they can see into the sixties and seventies and predict first wave feminism.
Otherwise, the book leans too hard on certain easy tropes – the tragic late-book death, the seemingly perfect party girl who’s messed up inside, the chessboard that is the cutthroat nature of society as run by adults versus the secret one run by teenagers. There are two central romances in the book – one tragic, one fulfilling but insta-lovey – which feel very Maeve Binchy-esque but are nowhere near central to the main thrust of the story. The tale is told in a style that’s fairly workmanlike, with little punch.
The Last Dance of the Debutante is a perfectly okay character study that ends up falling into the punchbowl of mediocrity.