From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Once upon a time, every young lady who was anyone in British society was presented at court. It involved an official invitation from the Palace, the proper bespoke gown, and a steady, deep curtsey in front of their sovereign. The ceremony heralded in a new crop of debutantes and the official opening of the Season. In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II proclaimed that the ceremony would cease, and the final year of presentations would be 1958. In The Last Dance of the Debutante, bestselling author Julia Kelly follows the lives of three very different young debs as they navigate their coming out Season. Whose curtesy will wobble? Who will be Deb of the Year? Who will snag a rich, titled husband?
A Schoolgirl Transformed
Lily Nichols is eighteen, a talented dressmaker, loves to read, and is hoping to attend university. When her grandmama tells her that she will be a debutante she is reluctant. She does not have much of a chance at success. Her father died when she was young (under puzzling circumstances), her older sister is estranged from her family after a scandal, and her mummy has been living in seclusion since Lily was born. Unfortunately, her grandmama holds the purse strings and supports them all. Her word is law.
“…one chance to charm the right sort of man, or you will be left with so few options for a husband.” “A husband?” she whispered, suddenly feeling a strange new sympathy for every heroine of every nineteenth- century novel she’d ever read.” (9)
Lily has little choice, so there will be couture gowns and champagne in her future.
Meeting the ‘Right’ Sort of People
After the presentation at court there are five months of tea parties, cocktail soirees, and grand balls. The competition between debs is fierce. They all want to receive the right invitations to meet the right sort of people so they can marry well. Every detail of their appearance, deportment, and family pedigree is scrutinized.
“…she could sense them taking in her hair, face, dress, shoes, figure. She felt a little like a kitten in a pet shop window, peered at as potential owners decided whether or not she was suitable to bring home.” (45)
Early on Lily is befriended by Leana Hartford, a favorite for “Deb of the Year.” She is a diplomat’s daughter whose family triggers disapproval with Lily’s mummy for unknown reasons. Her drinking problem and controlling nature become more serious as the Season progresses. Her second friend, Katherine Norman, is the even more interesting. Tagged the “Millionaire Deb,” her family is nouveau riche. Her grandmother does not approve of them either. After her Season, Katherine has plans to attend graduate school and be a career woman. Gasp!
Drama, Defiance, and Secrets
As the Season progresses, the competition between debs causes drama as the social maneuvering rachets up the tension. Meanwhile, Lily stands her ground against her mummy. It’s the beginning of her taking charge of her life and happiness.
“No matter the truth or a lie, either her mother or her grandmother was going to be displeased with her. Does it really matter? The thought struck her with the blinding brilliance of lightning. This wasn’t Mummy’s or Grandmama’s Season. They didn’t need to get along with the girls that she met. She had to find her own way among this crowd. These were her friendships, just as it was her own life.” (51)
As she continues to make friends and meet the challenges of the Season, Lily learns of a shocking family secret. Will it forestall all her hopes, or become her freedom?
A Time of Great Social Change
The Last Dance of the Debutante is much more than couture gowns and posh parties. It is an interesting character study of young, privileged British women navigating the labyrinth of social propriety during a time when their possibilities were changing. Should they embrace tradition and marry well? Should they marry only for love? Should they continue their education? Should they become career girls? Exploring these choices made the book so much more interesting, especially since expectations of women’s roles in the late 1950s were still very traditional. It would not change for another twenty years.
Kelly has a gift for worldbuilding that is remarkable. You will feel totally emersed in the protocols of the court and social Season. Her descriptions of the fashion and homes were period accurate, and the dialogue was natural and interesting—though I craved more humor to offset the tension. I had a difficult time relating to the characters at the beginning and was concerned when the first 20% of the book seemed so trivial. Who cares about rich toffs and their social climbing? As the novel progressed, I became more entrenched in their lives and not in the social events. Lily and Katherine were interesting characters that I rooted for. However, the big reveal of the family secrets came very late in the story, so hang in there.
I was encouraged that The Last Dance was set in the late 1950s. It was refreshing to experience a different era from the most popular WWII stories that we have such a wide selection of. If you enjoyed the television series The Crown and would like to explore the social changes of this era, this will be a perfect choice.
4 out of 5 Stars
- The Last Dance of the Debutante: A Novel, by Julia Kelly
- Gallery Books (January 4, 2022)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (336) pages
- ISBN: 978-1982171636
- Genre: Historical Fiction
We received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Galley Books © 2022; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2022, austenprose.com.
Hello Dear Readers,
Have you read any of the other novels by Julia Kelly?
If you enjoy historical fiction with accurate settings, engaging plots, and interesting characters, Austenprose highly recommends them.
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Laurel Ann Nattress, editor