Historical fiction isn’t my first choice of genre, but something about this book’s blurb appealed to me.

…and the cover was lovely. (Yes, I’m afraid I do judge books by their covers, but only until I read them!)

Pam Jenoff’s carefully researched novel, ‘The Last Embrace’, uses World War Two as a dramatic backdrop for a story that’s presented as a romance but is arguably more a coming-of-age tale – something I invariably do enjoy.

What’s it about?

August 1940: 16 year old Addie reluctantly escapes from Fascist Italy to live with her aunt and uncle in Atlantic City. There she is befriended by the Connally family – three lively teenage boys and their loving parents. Addie quickly develops a crush on the eldest, Charlie, and, during one pleasant summer, almost becomes an extra Connally, despite the reservations of her aunt and uncle. Then America enters the war and Addie is excited to discover that Charlie likes her too. But of course, romance is never that simple.

Suddenly, one brother’s selfish actions lead to the death of another. The family is decimated and Addie is left alone. Heartbroken, she runs away to London, but before long the past catches up to her in the form of Charlie. Can they make it work this time?

What’s it like?

Cleverly organised. We first meet Addie in Washington, where a chance encounter with Charlie leaves her stunned and us wondering. What happened between them? Why have they been apart? Will they get back together? Next we are in Philadelphia two years earlier, witnessing Addie’s arrival in America and her developing relationship with all the Connallys. Events gradually build to a crescendo, then the action moves to London and we witness Addie build a new life for herself in a London still enduring terrifying bombing.

by the end she has a hard-won pragmatism and is tackling life on her own terms.

Jenoff reveals information gradually and by the time we piece together what drove Charlie and Addie apart, we’re realising that it might not be that simple. Charlie is the classic golden boy: bright, athletic, handsome, patriotic, brave…and ready to protect his woman. As Addie begins to develop a career and a life, does she want to be protected? (Arguably, someone who has deliberately, knowingly, voluntrarily moved from the relative safety of Washington to the life-threatening environs of post-Blitz London in an attempt to outrun a broken heart neither wants nor deserves cossetting!)

I enjoyed seeing Addie develop into a confident young woman as the book progressed. She makes difficult choices, even dangerous choices, and although initially very naive, by the end she has a hard-won pragmatism and is tackling life on her own terms.

What’s not to like?

‘A knife ripped through me at the idea that he might leave again’

It’s initially very cliched. Addie finds that ‘A knife ripped through me at the idea that he might leave again’; there are ‘waves of electricity’ between her and Charlie and their passion becomes ‘A freight train neither of us could stop’. Ho hum. But it does get much better and later we learn that: ‘The sun had burst through the horizon, spreading its wings and talons through the dark clouds like a golden eagle.’ Lovely.

Sometimes Addie’s impetuousness and youth frustrated me…but she is young and teenagers are impetuous. In fact, Jenoff captures perfectly the ambivilance at the centre of many a relationship, where the desire to be love and be loved comes into conflict with the desire for independence and respect.

 Final thoughts

I read this slowly over a couple of weeks and feel this was the best way to enjoy it, given the pacing and plot. Jenoff handles the shifts in time and place effectively, helping to reveal Addie’s maturation over a period of a few years. There are a few interesting sub-plots to keep readers entertained along the way but everything works to support our interest in Adie, which I liked. I also appreciated the way this read as a contemporary novel rather than a ‘historical’ or ‘period’ piece, by which I mean I never felt that I was being instructed in the history or social mores of the period. Everything and everyone felt natural and ‘period’ details were simply part of a well-told story.

Finally, I really liked the ending – it was appropriately subdued, given the preceding events, but was exactly what I had hoped from the beginning. Well done, Addie!

Thanks to Midas for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
‘The Last Embrace’
Pam Jenoff
Harlequin MIRA, 2015, paperback