Reviewed by Emma Crowley
August 1940 and 16-year-old refugee Addie escapes Fascist Italy to live with her aunt and uncle in Atlantic City. As WW2 breaks, she finds acceptance and love with Charlie Connelly and his family.
But war changes everything: secrets and passions abound, and when one brother’s destructive choices lead to the tragic death of another, the Connelly family is decimated, and Addie along with them.
Now 18, she flees, first to Washington and then to war-torn London where she is swept up with life as a correspondent. But when Charlie, now a paratrooper, re-appears, Addie discovers that the past is impossible to outrun. Now she must make one last desperate attempt to find within herself the answers that will lead the way home.
The Last Embrace is only the second book I have read by Pam Jenoff. I discovered her writing late last year and was very impressed with The Winter Guest so I hoped this new release would be just as good. I never tire of reading books set in and around World War Two and the blurb for this book proved no exception. I began this book with high expectations and was curious to uncover the story of Addie and how she flees Fascist Italy. I did enjoy this book but admittedly not as much as The Winter Guest, I thought there would be more of a focus on Addie’s time spent in England and why she went there. Instead this book felt split in two focusing on Addie’s time with the Connelly family and then her time in England. On reflection I understand this is a love story with the war and its tragedies a background to a greater story. Once I came to this understanding I appreciated the storyline and its themes a lot more. Pam Jenoff has written a remarkable story about how a tragedy can tear us apart but love will always bring us back together.
The prologue is set in New Jersey. It is 1944 and someone is coming back after a period away. It appears as if the place has not changed or been affected by the events of the war. All this person’s memories and associations are still the same but you sense he or she has been through traumatic times and their confusion at time standing still in New Jersey is evident whilst the world has altered forever. We then go back a year to Washington DC, Adelia (Addie) Montforte is a typist on the Washington Post but her Italian background comes in handy when her editor needs a translator. At a meeting where she is taking notes a chance encounter with Charlie Connelly reignites memories she had firmly pushed to the depths of her heart and mind. It is blatantly obvious the pair have a shared past and a deep connection and there is a lot of hurt here. Charlie hopes for some sort of reconciliation but Addie’s fears are there for all to see 'Did he really think we could put all of those broken pieces back together and not see the cracks? Doubt thundered beneath my feet like a freight train and the ground began to sway’. This is just an example of some of the fantastic writing by Pam Jenoff. Several times I stopped and reread sentences to absorb every word and their meaning. She had a deft touch when it came to exploring love and all of Addie’s emotions. To learn how Addie reached this point the author took us back to New Jersey in 1941.
Addie has been sent from Italy to stay with her uncle and aunt in America. Abruptly removed from her parents and all home comforts and everything she has known she finds herself in a strange land and with two people she does not connect with despite being relatives. I found Addie to be very naive in thinking she would be able to return to Italy and not fully understanding why her mother placed her on the boat. She must have been aware of the dangers of living in Fascist Italy and that her parents knew what was ahead for them and only wanted to secure her safety. I can understand she was scared and felt abandoned but she could have made more of an effort to connect with Aunt Bess and Uncle Meyer. Addie’s world was turned upside down, to go from the familiar to the unknown she needed to employ all her courage and tenacity to embrace the circumstances she found herself in. I just wish she could have been that little bit stronger earlier on. Her salvation comes in the form of the Connelly boys who live next door to the boarding house Bess rents during the summer months. Charlie, Robbie, Liam and Jack (twins) and their mother Doris help Addie see things in a new light. She begins to relax and form bonds with the family. A spark inevitably is ignited between herself and Charlie but they never do fully give in as much as I wanted them to what they are feeling. There is a certain development of the relationship but it never got fully going in the first parts of the book.There is alot left unsaid here. We know what Addie is thinking but I wanted her to open up, make a commitment, take a step towards expressing her feelings. Forming such close ties with the Connelly family when a horrific event leaves the family torn apart and they leave New Jersey Addie is left devastated. She promises to wait for Charlie but they have upped and left. How can she go on with this void left by the harrowing, painful events?
Although enjoyable enough to read of Addie’s developing relationship with the Connelly family I found this part of the book very slow. It did set up for what was to come but it didn’t always hold my interest and I felt the book needed to be moved on. This finally happened when Addie takes herself off to England after her encounter with Charlie in Washington. Yet again she is always fleeing instead of confronting the issue head on. The parts of the book set in England were the best for me. We see a whole new side of Addie, she grows up an awful lot as she encounters the everyday realities of the war. We are introduced to new characters and the book took on a whole new level. It seemed more fresh and exciting and I became more invested in Addie’s overall outcome. Claire Churchill and Theodore White were excellent characters and they added twists and turns which the book needed. Addie totally changes once she is employed by Theodore. Her true character comes to the fore and she puts herself on the line. I found myself liking her more as at times up until this point the book had seemed a bit disjointed with two separate stories. They came together nicely towards the end. So much happens in England with Addie’s part in the war and it kept me enthralled but still the question of her true love remained and I was shocked at some of the characters actions in this section considering the feelings they supposedly had for each other.
The final part of the book saw some answers to my questions. I was eager to discover what true outcome was in store for Addie. We are taken back to the shore and for a while I resented this because I had loved all the action in England. The book once again slowed down and I was thoroughly surprised by the final outcome. For me it kind of came from left field and I’m not sure it was the outcome I wanted for Addie after I had been with her every step of her challenging journey. After all her indecisiveness and at times frustrating actions she secured the future she wanted but a little bit of me wanted something different. Addie is a totally different character in the end and all the better for it I enjoyed travelling with her as she discovered herself and experienced the effects of war. This wasn’t my favourite historical fiction read of the year but none the less it is a good love story well told and I will definitely be checking out Pam’s next release in the future.
I'd like to thank Eve at Midas PR for sending Emma a copy of The Last Embrace to review.