After the Last Dance by Sarra Manning

In brief: A dual narrative of WWII London and present day, with Rose the main character across two time periods. How did she get from naïve young girl to confident matriarch?

The good: I loved reading about Rainbow Corner.

The not-so-good: Jane and Leo were quite unlikeable initially.

Why I chose it: The cover and blurb captured my eye, thanks to Hachette Australia for the copy.

Year: 2015

Pages: 420

Publisher: Sphere (Hachette)

Setting: England and USA

My rating: 8 out of 10

I have a bit of a complex relationship with After the Last Dance. There were some bits I loved to pieces, others that were terrifically emotional and some bits that made me wonder whether I was still reading the same book. I do love dual narrative books spread across time periods, but this one had some awkward moments. It also had some bloody brilliant scenes. So what worked for me?

I really enjoyed the narrative of young Rose, who runs away to London with her mother’s fur coat and sister’s dressers because there is no way on earth she’s going to be a Land Girl. She saw on the newsreels about Rainbow Corner, a home away from home for the American GIs in London and she’s going to get there. Never mind the weird taste of this Coca-Cola stuff, Rose isn’t going home, she’s going to reinvent herself as older and wittier. Naturally, Rose gets into several scrapes along the way, but she also meets a lovely bunch of friends (‘my girls’ she calls them) and a nice boy or two. It’s not all Coke and doughnuts though. There’s fear and devastation as the war continues, and Rose isn’t left out. I think that this storyline could more than hold its own in a single book. It’s charming and fraught with a range of emotions. I’ve never read about Rainbow Corner before (as the myth goes, when it was opened, they threw away the key because it would never be shut) and I think Sarra Manning makes it sound fascinating.

The storyline set in the modern day took some time for me to like it. It almost seems like a different genre – girl in wedding dress walks into a bar in Vegas and marries one of the patrons. It’s rough, blunt and very sexy early on. It didn’t quite match the tone of Rose’s story or even seem to be in the same calibre. Jane, the bride, is harsh and calculated beneath the tiara. She jilted her fiancé after it turned out he wasn’t going to be a billionaire. She talks about being married by 27, but why does she throw everything she’s worked for away for a penniless artist in Leo? Leo is often described as not being much of a catch – he’s pudgy, a no-hoper and enjoys a line of three. I didn’t understand why Jane would suddenly turn from fortune hunter to a needy female who marries (literally) the first man she sees? Lucky for her, Leo has a very rich aunt in Rose and now she’s dying, so it’s off to London they go.

The narrative then shifts to Leo and Jane playing each other and Rose playing them both. Will the newlyweds stop pretending and start living? As time goes on, more of the backstory of Rose, Leo and Jane is told until you can see where they are coming from (but sometimes I still didn’t see why Jane and Leo made the choices they did). The strength of After the Last Dance is in the story – Manning is not afraid to shock or make the reader cry. While I didn’t find all of the characters endearing, my thoughts on this book skyrocketed within the last 100 pages. Manning knows how to pack an emotional punch. I’d love to see her try her hand at historical fiction, as she also captured the glamour and living one day at a time of World War II London.

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