Book Review for “The Last Night in London” by Karen White.
Summary: “London, 1939. Beautiful and ambitious Eva Harlow and her American best friend, Precious Dubose, are trying to make their way as fashion models. When Eva falls in love with Graham St. John, an aristocrat and Royal Air Force pilot, she can’t believe her luck—she’s getting everything she ever wanted. Then the Blitz devastates her world, and Eva finds herself slipping into a web of intrigue, spies, and secrets. As Eva struggles to protect her friendship with Precious and everything she holds dear, all it takes is one unwary moment to change their lives forever… London, 2019. American journalist Maddie Warner, whose life has been marked by the tragic loss of her mother, travels to London to interview Precious about her life in pre-WWII London. Maddie has been careful to close herself off to others, but in Precious she recognizes someone whose grief rivals her own—but unlike Maddie, Precious hasn’t allowed it to crush her. Maddie finds herself drawn to both Precious and to Colin, her enigmatic surrogate nephew. As Maddie gets closer to her, she begins to unravel Precious’s haunting past—a story of friendship, betrayal, and the unremembered acts of kindness and of love.“
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, Contemporary, England – London; Other Categories: Novel, Mystery, Romance, Dual Timelines, WWII.
Let me start out by saying that I almost gave up on this book, but I’m glad I didn’t. One of the reasons I wavered was that I’m getting a bit tired of dual timelines, particularly the ones where one is historical and the other is contemporary. Now, that’s not to say that they can’t be great, because they really can. The thing is, you need a really good reason to have one, and to begin with, I wasn’t sure there was one. I guess I was worried that one of the timelines was there to beef up the story, or add an element of mystery, or to include a romance. If any of those are the only reason for one of those timelines, then maybe it might be a good idea to think twice about having two timelines. If it ends up being a shorter novel, or even a novella, that’s not a problem, as long as the writing is good. And the thing is, the writing here is good – very good, in fact.
My other concern at the start of this book was a trope in the 2019 section that has just been done to death. That being, two people with a history meet years later and one is angry or even hates the other. This will obviously change and after some misunderstanding is explained away, so all will be forgiven and we get hearts and kisses and the “happily ever after” that will obviously ensue. Sorry, but this hate-to-love trope is older than the hills. (I give you Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” as the earliest example I know. What’s more, the Bard doubled this trope here. Remember the evil Prince Don John’s machinations falsely tarnishing Hero’s reputation in order to take revenge on Claudio, right? That’s what forces sworn enemies Beatrice and Benedict to come together to devise a plan to prove Hero’s innocence and thereby get them back together, and fall in love in the process.) White employs most of this trope for Maddie and Colin as well as with Eva and Graham, with some changes along the way, not all of which worked for me.
On the other hand, there’s the WWII section, where the prologue (which takes place in the middle of a blitz bombing in 1941) is so intriguing that you automatically say “WOW” and are anxious to read more. Then we slip back to 1939, and the two models – Precious and Eva. Now, because the 2019 section is about Maddie interviewing Precious, I was expecting this part to be about her. Instead, I got Eva’s story, which made me re-think who the woman in the prologue was, and we don’t get the full story until much later on in the book. The thing is, White puts in a whole slew of complexities and twists so that early on, we might wonder why Precious is in the story at all (but you have to read to the end to find that out). Admittedly, despite this initial reluctance, as I got further into this book, I realized that the two timelines intertwined very nicely, were both necessary to the story, and I now fully understand why White went with this mechanic (but that doesn’t mean I’m rewarming to dual/multiple timelines, in general).
Another intriguing aspect is that Maddie tells her story in first person, while the WWII parts are in third person. I’ve seen this combination work beautifully in Lawon’s “I Was Anastasia,” and the reasoning behind it made perfect sense (the real person spoke in her own voice, while the imposter’s story was told in third person – as if the imposter didn’t have a real voice because of her subterfuge). I’m not so sure that I understand why White decided to change POVs for these two sections. That said, I think that the third person for the WWII sections actually added to the mystery here. While I was unsure if first person for the 2019 sections was the best choice, especially since it distanced the reader from understanding Colin, but by the time I reached the end of this book, I was mostly convinced otherwise (although not completely).
I realize how negative all this sounds, and I really want to dispel any wrong impressions here. Yes, the first 20% or so of this book dragged a bit, the pacing throughout about 75% of the book was a bit slower than I would have liked, and there was a bit too much romance in the 2019 parts for my taste, but I think there’s still a whole lot to like about this novel. As noted above, White puts quite a few obstacles in the path of her protagonists, making for several areas where we have many questions, and people searching for answers. These are all both separate and connected, and it was my curiosity regarding how they’d be resolved that kept me reading. In fact, what seems to be White’s greatest talent is her ability to create a mystery (or two), and then mislead the reader regarding the solution/s, until almost the very end. Finally, as noted above, this is beautifully written, in a very clear and engaging style. That’s why I’ll recommend it, with my most honest rating being a healthy four stars out of five. (I give this rating knowing full well that this will very likely get top marks from readers who don’t mind a slightly worn romantic trope nuzzling into their mystery novels.)
Berkley Publishing Group released “The Last Night in London” by Karen White on April 20, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.