The Last Night in London
The Last Night in London is an enthralling story about the bonds of friendship, the wonder of falling in love and the often painful experience of holding on to hope in the midst of unexpected hardship.
It begins with an exhibit. Ninety-nine-year-old Precious Dubose had been a model for decades and kept many of the fashions she had worn. When the Design Museum in London, the city where she has lived for most of her life, decides to do a presentation of 1940s fashion, Precious donates her wardrobe from that time period. Her honorary granddaughter Arabella is helping to catalog and prepare Precious’ collection for the display and as a magazine editor, sees an opportunity for a fascinating story in the elegant garments of that bygone era and the woman who’d worn them. Precious modeled in London and Paris during WWII, working for the likes of Coco Channel and Madame Lushtak; she’d danced at underground clubs during the Blitz and dined with Nazi officers during the occupation of France. An article about Precious would capture not just the hardships and turmoil of those years but the stylish beauty and magnificence of the era’s haute couture. And Arabella knows just the woman to write that feature.
Maddie Warner – who was at Oxford with Arabella – is currently a journalist but had also trained as a photographer and is a fourth cousin to Precious. The family connection will hopefully soothe Precious’ anxiety/reluctance to speak of the past, and having just one person write and take pictures will mean fewer people traipsing through the nonagenarian’s home. Maddie is happy to come to London and interview this living legend, but is far less pleased when she learns she will be sharing an apartment not only with Precious but also Colin Eliot, Arabella’s cousin and the bane of Maddie’s university years. As she tells Arabella, “Colin is the kind of guy a girl could really fall for. In a permanent way.” And Maddie feels she has just cause to insist on being with people who are only into temporary relationships; men who live in the here and now and never talk about the future. Colin is also less than pleased at the realization that the woman who’d spent years rebuffing and rejecting his advances will be sharing his home but reluctantly agrees to play nice for Precious’ sake.
Maddie and Colin plan to keep their distance from each other but that quickly becomes impossible as they find themselves caught up in investigating the details of Precious’ past. It’s a history deeply entwined with Precious’ 1940s flat mate, another gorgeous blonde model named Eva Harlow, whose large friendship circle had incorporated such disparate characters as the wealthy Alexander Groff and makeup artist/Czechoslovakian refugee Anton Danek – and whose lover, Graham St. John, a Royal Airforce Pilot with aristocratic lineage, had been close to Precious as well. It doesn’t take long for Maddie and Colin to realize the tale they’ve stumbled upon is far more complex than they had first thought – and to understand that finding answers to their questions will affect both their lives forever.
This book is written in a dual timeline format with the far more interesting story being told in the WWII portions of the narrative. While Precious, Maddie and Colin are the focal points of the contemporary piece, it is Eva who stars in the historical segment. And that’s a good thing, since Eva is easily the most likable of all the female leads in the tale. Raised by a drunken father who wound up in prison, and a downtrodden mother who’d had all her dreams beaten out of her, Eva is a master of reinvention. She has a knack for mimicking behavior and accents, and as a model at an exclusive fashion house, is exposed to people from all walks of life, and quickly learns how to pass herself off as a genteel young woman of good breeding who has fallen on hard times. Her skill at deception comes with a heavy price tag, however. Not only can she not be sure of what Graham will do once he learns the truth, she finds herself being blackmailed into unscrupulous behavior when a dangerous man figures out her secret.
Eva makes some poor choices as a result of her difficult situation, but I loved how strong, resilient and clever she is. Ultimately, she does all the right things and is definitely a heroine worth rooting for.
Precious is a side note in her own past. A transplanted Southern Belle in the rarefied air of European high fashion, she often seems to be nothing more than a frightened little girl playing dress-up. As the story progressed, I became more and more intrigued as to how Precious would go from being a wallflower to the belle of the ball she became in her later years – and the formidable woman Maddie is interviewing.
Maddie was the hardest of the characters for me to connect with. That’s understandable since she’s described as working very hard to keep people at a distance. The text alludes to a deep, secret reason for that, but I had guessed what it was within the first couple of chapters, and I think most other readers will, too. While I could understand Maddie’s reserved nature given her circumstances, that intellectual acknowledgment of her difficulties didn’t translate into the kind of emotional bond I think the author intended me to have with her. I found myself frustrated by her unwillingness to fully live because she had fears based on past events, and the effect those would have on her future. As a result, I wasn’t delighted by her inevitable romance with Colin. The relationship seems to be based almost entirely on mutual attraction and his willingness to deal with her anxieties and difficulties.
Graham and Eva fall in love with all the romantic trappings one could wish for, but their love story is strained by Eva’s lies and then takes a dark turn at the end which is very bittersweet.
Much is made in the text of how Colin looks a great deal like Graham St. John, and he proves to be similar in temperament as well. Both men are kind, dependable, gracious, brave, loving – they are near perfect heroes who work well as a foil for our heroines.
Among the quibbles I had with the tale was that a great deal of emphasis is placed on an idealized image of “charming” Southern heritage. Both Precious and Maddie hail from the South and Maddie has a tendency to talk about this a great deal and use grating phrases like “I could eat the north end of a southbound polecat” or “Is a frog’s butt watertight?” to emphasize whatever point she is making. I found those little colloquialisms and the regional romanticizing to be grating rather than endearing.
The Last Night in London is an intriguing look at survival, forgiveness, and love amongst the war-time generation. While the weak romances and nostalgic representation of the American South keep it from DIK status, I would still recommend it to any fan of dual timeline novels and lovers of WWII fiction.