I have read a lot of Sarra Manning’s work and I usually really enjoy it, particularly the YA offerings. In After the Last Dance, Manning tries her hand at writing historical fiction, and I am left with mixed feelings. The book features two plots, one following a teenage runaway called Rose in London during WWII, and then other following Jane and Leo, two messed up adults in the modern day who get married on a whim and then go to see Leo’s great aunt Rose, who is on her deathbed. Rose thereby becomes the pin that connects the two plots, but their bearing on one another is largely thematic and the link doesn’t seem particularly strong.
Manning’s work often features difficult characters: rebellious or stroppy teenage girls, flaky young women, emotionally cold romantic heroes. However, I would argue that usually, the female protagonists of her novels are likeable from the get-go, if perhaps a bit selfish or short-tempered. It took me a long time to get into After the Last Dance because at the start of the story, none of the characters come across as particularly sympathetic. In the 1940s, we follow the story of Rose, a teenager who has run away from home in the naive hopes of having a high time partying at Rainbow Corner, a club for visiting American soldiers. Her desires, framed against the backdrop of WWII, are seem self-centred and the overwhelming impression you get is that she is a brat. Back in the present day story-line, we have Leo, a thirty-something failed artist and drug addict, and Jane, an aspiring trophy wife who is already botoxed despite still being in her twenties. All three main characters are selfish and vapid, and Manning doesn’t give you much to like about them.
As the book progresses, the characters develop ever-so-slowly towards being better people. The first few times I picked this book up I only read a few pages before losing interest again. It wasn’t until I was around a quarter of the way through that I got stuck in and started to be curious about what would happen to the characters – before then, I didn’t care. However, I have to say that once I got into the meat of the story lines, there were certain parts that really worked on an emotional level – Rose’s trauma during the war was harrowing but really well written, as was the drawn out tension and sadness that suffuses the contemporary plot about the end of Rose’s life.
Overall, the book suffered from the dual timeline issue present in a lot of historical/contemporary novels, in that it is trying to write two plots that have some relevance for each other, and not always succeeding, (unless we go with the theme of everybody grows up and becomes a slightly better person). The contemporary plot, although it features some good emotional moments about familial reconciliation and drawn out deaths, is largely just two messed up people waiting for an old woman to die, so it’s not edge-of-your-seat exciting. The later parts of the Rose plot were interesting and enjoyable, however. I liked the window into wartime London, and how Manning handled Rose’s romantic life, which managed to surprise and move me. Rose ended up being more sympathetic because as the story progressed she not only matured, we got to understand her world and how her initial shallowness was to some extent a product of her environment, of reckless gaiety as a response to living under rationing and fear of death.
This is a book where when I started writing the review, I thought I had finished the book quite liking it, and the more I thought about it, and about how I felt about the earlier sections, the more mixed my feelings became! Sometimes the reading experience can be entertaining but the book doesn’t hold up under close examination, I guess. If you are not put off by unsympathetic characters and you like coming-of-age and growth-through-trauma stories, this could be for you? If you are patient with the first part of the book, the middle and end thirds are a lot more engaging.