The Last Night in London by Karen White is a contemporary/historical novel that goes back and forth between present-day London and London just before the beginning of WWII, in 1939, through the Blitz.
Maddie has been asked to come to London to interview an elderly woman who goes by the name of Precious and just happens to be distantly related to Maddie. Precious was a model in the late 30s to early 40s and the article Maddie writes will be paired with an exhibit at the local Design Museum that will include clothing and accessories Precious saved from her time as a model. The editor in charge is a college friend from when Maddie was studying in England and Maddie will be staying in the spacious Marylebone Road flat in which Precious lives, which is owned by the family of the editor's cousin, Colin, whom Maddie has avoided in the past.
In 1939, we get to know Precious and her best friend and roommate, Eva. Eva's real name is Ethel Maltby and she is from Yorkshire, the daughter of a laundress and a drunken abuser, while Precious is an American. Eva has an ear for accents and has decided to reinvent herself. In her new persona as Eva Harlow, she meets Graham and falls madly in love. But, Graham is high born and it will be difficult enough for his parents to accept Eva as the daughter of a deceased doctor and his wife. They would absolutely force him to reject her if they knew the truth.
In the present day, Precious is a bit cagey but says that Graham and Eva disappeared in 1940 and she would like to know what happened to them before she dies. Her heart is failing and she probably doesn't have much time left. While Maddie gathers information and sifts through the various articles of clothing that have been preserved, she also tries to unravel clues about the elusive Eva and figure out why someone's image has been cut from many of the photos that she's able to obtain from Colin's mother, which were kept by Graham's sister, Sophia.
Meanwhile, as Britain watches Hitler's every move and prepares for war, someone finds out Eva's secret and threatens to tell Graham and his family if she doesn't do as he says.
In the past, what will Eva do when she is threatened? What became of Eva and Graham? And, in the present, what does Precious know that she's too tight-lipped to share? Will Maddie be able to figure out the mystery of Eva and Graham? What do a sterling silver cigarette case, an address, the deliberately damaged photos, and some unopened envelopes have to do with their story?
Highly recommended, especially for London and WWII aficionados - A nice, twisty story with a fantastic setting. There were things I absolutely loved about The Last Night in London and a few that didn't feel quite right or consistent with the beginning of the book but in general I loved it once it got going. For example, there's a prologue that takes place during the Blitz that's extremely exciting just before you get into the tale of Maddie and Precious. I need to go back and read it because it doesn't feel like it entirely matched up with the ending. But it was one of those dangling carrots that kept the pages flying and I loved that. I also thought the beginning was ridiculously over-plotted. Too many connections that were unnecessary or hard to buy into. But again, once the story got going that didn't matter one bit; the connections were irrelevant apart from how Maddie's past melded with her present and and the distant connection between Maddie and Precious was only relevant in their mutual turn of phrase and understanding of Southern ways.
There's also a bit of silliness that leads Maddie to push away Colin. It's a bit of a spoiler but it's something that affects my own life and I just thought it was . . . well, not a very good reason for the heroine to keep doing the, "Come here, go away, go away, come here," thing. And, I did figure out the surprise twist early on. I looked at some earlier reviews of books by Karen White and found that I tend to find her stories predictable, but again, that just didn't matter because I really did enjoy the twists and turns to the story.
But by far the thing I loved best about The Last Night in London was the setting. I adore London and the familiarity with places mentioned made this read almost comfy to me. In fact, most of the book takes place in the flat in which Precious lives, which is located in an apartment complex called Harley House on Marylebone Road, a real building that I stayed in with a friend whose father lived there. His employer paid for yearly visits from the family members who remained in the US and she invited me to tag along, one year. It was one of the best experiences of my life so revisiting the area through fiction was amazing. It was the Harley House setting that tempted me to accept the book for review and I'm so glad I did. The Last Night in London is by far the best book I've read by Karen White and I think her experience living in Harley House is part of the reason it's so good; her knowledge of the area really shines through.
I was so excited about The Last Night in London being set in Harley House that I got in touch with the friend whose father lived in Harley House and she was every bit as excited as I was. Her stepmother, who lived in the flat for many years, is also planning to read it. I'm happy to say it was worth recommending to them!!
Husband and I stayed in the Marylebone area (on Baker Street), a handful of years ago, and Harley House was just around the corner so we sought it out. I thought it looked like the road had been widened but the building looked just the same and I took a single photo:
It's a big, beautiful building that borders Regent's Park. Some of the windows of my friend's father's flat opened onto the side shown, which is right next to the Royal Academy of Music. It was summer and we kept the windows open so in the morning we'd awaken to beautiful music.
Many thanks to Berkley Books for the advanced and finished copies and for the excuse to write to my childhood friend. We have emailed sporadically and met up a couple times but it never hurts to find an excuse to contact an old buddy!
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