The Last Dance of the Debutante By Julia Kelly

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
A description of the London debutante season during the last year at which debs were presented to Queen Elizabeth (March 1958). Told from the perspective of Lily — a young woman who would much prefer furthering her studies in literature but nevertheless obliges her mother and grandmother by being the best deb she can be. While there are plenty of descriptions of gowns, parties, and balls (as one would expect), what I liked was the perspective of someone for whom the daily activities were — while pleasurable at times — more chore than treat. Utterly exhausting at times, in fact. The Season had a purpose and it was to be pursued with brutal focus: meet the “right” people and find an eligible man with whom to start the “right” kind of life. Lily has principles and gains a greater understanding of what those principles are and how to handle the conflicts that arise when her principles meet her family’s goals. We gain access to a variety of characters through an unusual take on the lives of “quality” women during this time period. Some secrets are unearthed, some surprising events occur, and the story is engaging from start to finish. The author describes her interviews with various debutantes of the time — very well put together!

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (Historical Fiction)

A story you can slide right in to, The Last Garden in England brings to life three generations of women whose lives cross the spectacular gardens at Highbury House in Warwickshire. Mixing their voices in a collection of chapters slotted into each season of a single year, we witness the progression of their lives in the contexts of radically different times and accompanying social mores.

In 1907, Edwardian garden designer Venetia Smith designs the gardens. In 1944, recently widowed Diana Symonds is the Lady of Highbury House, now repurposed as a convalescent hospital; Stella Adderton, head cook, is caring for her orphaned nephew; and Elizabeth Pedley is a Land Girl on the adjacent farm. In 2021, Emma Lovett is trying to restore the gardens, struggling to unearth information on their original state.

The writing and story remind me of Kate Morton (I’m a fan) — deep characters and easily absorbed writing with a plot that that is equally character and story driven. I love the way each character makes her way through the constraints of her time period following the dictates of her own values on vocation, family, love, and internal worth. They were all different! Some were naturally maternal, some not; some were pulled towards a life of great achievement (despite difficulties), some not; some were willing to compromise for love, some not. I loved the lack of stereotypes and the matter-of-fact descriptions of social context for women in each time period and the way they got on with it. Included interesting insight into the process of garden design (both creation and restoration).

A real joy to read with that lovely combination that keeps both the heart and the mind engaged.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 12th, 2021.