Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Two women. Two love affairs. One unforgettable story.
Kings Cross station, 1943. Rose arrives in London hoping to swap the drudgery of wartime for romance, glamour and jiving with GIs at Rainbow Corner, the famous dance hall in Piccadilly Circus. As the bombs fall, Rose loses her heart to a pilot but will lose so much more before the war has done its worst.
Las Vegas, present day. A beautiful woman in a wedding dress walks into a seedy bar and asks the first man she sees to marry her. When Leo slips the ring onto Jane's finger, he has no idea that his new wife will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
So when Jane meets Rose, now a formidable older lady, there's no love lost between them. But with time running out, can Rose and Jane come together to make peace with the tragic secrets that have always haunted their lives?
After the Last Dance is the first book I have read from the literary editor of Red magazine, Sarra Manning. She has written young adult novels and this is her fifth for adults and her first foray into historical fiction. I always have a sense of trepidation when venturing into a book from an author who has previously written in a very different genre. Historical fiction with the time slip element is one of my favourite genres and I hate to see it not done well. For it to work both sides of the story have to grab me from the beginning and keep me enthralled. Unfortunately that's not what happened here and I was disappointed as I had heard such good things about this book and had being looking forward to it. If I was to stand back and really reflect on the book in my opinion it read like two separate novels that didn't gel together very well. I found myself struggling through the modern day sections but galloping through the parts set back during the war years. Both pieces of the story did read well enough on their own and could have been two separate books and I think that's what was my main problem with the book, it didn't know what it wanted to be. It should have been either focusing on Jane and Leo in the present or instead a completely different book focusing on Rose and her experiences of the war. I could see what the author was trying to achieve but she didn't quite pull it off.
Comparisons are there right from the opening chapters between our two main female characters Jane and Rose although their stories are told sixty years apart. Two young women arriving at Kings Cross station both escaping from different situations but equally determined to establish a new future for themselves, although the means by which they have achieved this are vastly different. We then move back and forth between present day London and the London of World War Two. Rose arrives in the city during the war fresh from the rural town of Durham. She wants adventure and excitement not to be shipped off by her parents to join the Land Girls once her exams are over so she does what she wants and flees to London. On arrival she meets an American GI who takes her to the most wonderful place Rainbow Corner - a place set up by the American Red Cross for their soldiers to relax and engage in some fun, dancing and meet some girls during their leave. Rose is transfixed by Rainbow Corner and is sure this is where she wants to be, at the centre of everything. She soon finds a dull job in a café by day and by night enjoys the delights Rainbow Corner has to offer. She makes friends with Sylvia, Maggie and Phyllis and together the girls enjoy the ups and downs of city life during the war.
They experience the hardships of not having everything you want and the everyday fear living inside you of bombs falling and of death and destruction. Rainbow Corner takes Rose's mind off everything and she begins to enjoy her new life. 'When she was dancing,the horrors of Rose's new life - the hunger, the fear of being dragged back to her old life and the terrible retribution that awaited all receded'. I absolutely loved all the parts of the novel set during the war. I had never heard of Rainbow Corner and this brought a fresh slant to a World War Two novel as it focused on one specific aspect instead of the wider picture ongoing at the time.
Initially Rose was naive and clueless but she soon became aware that she had to be tough to survive in a city where everyone was trying to look after themselves during such difficult times. I found myself wanting to get back to Rose's story more so than the present day chapters even if we are meeting Rose as an older woman. When the connection between Leo and Rose is established the book took on a different tone and Rose appeared as a totally different character from what I had been reading. We meet her at the tail end of her life and she is rich and successful in her chosen profession. I was eager to see how this had all come about.
As for the other female character in this book Jane well yes there are comparisons with Rose in the fact that they both arrive in London and both don't have an easy life. But really I much preferred Rose. Our first encounter with Jane is when she walks into a Las Vegas bar in a wedding dress and sits on a stool next to Leo where they proceed to get rip roaringly drunk. So much so that it culminates in their marriage in a wedding chapel 'Two bruised people looking for a little comfort, some kind of distraction, and they'd found it with each other'. Jane's story seemed so far fetched but it turned out to be fact and not fiction. She seemed like such a gold digger and a scam artist although what Leo could offer didn't seem apparent at first. Once she finds out more she got her claws into him and he seemed powerless to wise up to what she was up to and get rid of her. 'You are not a bad person she said out loud. Bad things have happened to you, they've turned you into what you are.It's not your fault'. Despite this Jane was not not a character that appealed to me at all. When Leo and Rose venture to London upon hearing news that his great aunt is ill I had hoped the modern day sections of the book would be more distinctive but sadly they were drawn out and the couple still didn't warrant any sympathy for me. Jane figures things out and she uses them to her advantage but when a face from her past reappears is everything she worked for about to be exposed? Will her secrets come rushing out and cause unforeseen damage?
How could anyone warm to either Jane or Leo? Both such selfish, self absorbed people which probably makes them perfect for each other. I know they go through changes during the course of the novel and by the end we are supposed to think they are reformed characters but my initial introduction and opinions about them were very hard to alter. Leo was lost and obviously stuck in his life of self medicating and abuse and travelling the world acquiring and dropping random women along the way. Jane was ruthless and hardened by her past experiences of which hints are alluded to throughout the novel. We see a vague softer side of her underneath that tough outer shell. Yet still I didn't like her at all. Some would call her actions ambitious but in my mind they were ambitious for all the wrong reasons. She wants to better herself and will knock down anyone that stands in the way of that process. She couldn't care less who she destroys and rips apart in her path. She does show some compassion towards Rose and the choice she is faced with is one no one ever wishes they have to make but still I really couldn't warm to her at all. Money and superiority are her ultimate goal and she will do whatever it takes to achieve her aim forgetting the consequences and destruction she leaves in her wake. Yes we are meant to feel an ounce of sympathy towards Jane considering events in her past but really she was cold hearted and mercenary. The whole situation meeting and marrying Leo in Vegas within a few hours was like something from a bonkbuster novel and that was not the kind of read I was expecting from this novel. I do enjoy that genre of novel but prefer to read it from the likes of Victoria Fox. Does this kind of storyline have its place in a novel featuring a historical aspect? Truthfully it didn't sit well with me and I couldn't see where the author wanted to go with this book as the modern didn't mix well with the past. The past was far better written and detailed and in this respect the author nailed it.
After the Last Dance was definitely a mixed bag for me but I am glad I gave it a chance despite my misgivings regarding certain characters. I would read this for Rose's story alone and brush over the actions of Jane and Leo. I'd like to see what Sarra Manning writes next. Has this journey into historical fiction whet her appetite for a full length novel or will she return to the style of her last book? It will be interesting to see.
i'd like to thank Emma for reviewing After The Last Dance which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.