mata hari's last dance book coverReviewed by Alexander Morrison

Mata Hari is one of the most infamous women of the 21st century. Everyone knows the end of her story, a German agent in Paris during World War I, caught and lined up in front of a French firing squad, impetuously blowing them a kiss before they shot her to death for treason. But few know who she was before then. Her internationally renowned career as a dancer is rarely discussed. Her abusive husband, her lost daughter, her tragic upbringing–all buried beneath that single, iconic image of her death. In Mata Hari’s Last Dance, author Michelle Moran tells her story, from days after arriving in Paris for the first time to her eventual death.

Unfortunately, the inevitable end of Mata Hari’s story – framed, it is widely believed today, by German intelligence officers aware she was a French agent – means that those final moments come a bit out of nowhere. But this is a rise-and-fall story, and the emphasis of the novel is very much on the ‘rise’, during which Mata Hari has considerably more agency. Sadly, that rise often feels disappointingly disjointed, a series of concerts and liaisons that aren’t really given context until a mid-plot motive finally begins to push those events into a stronger structure. The handful of running plots all eventually pay off, but the mid-to-late book felt like a bit of a slog until that connection arrived, a meeting that is a long time in the coming.

Still, Michelle Moran is a talented writer of historical fiction, even if Mata Hari’s Last Dance lacks the smart structural composition of her previous novel, Rebel Queen. In her best moments, Moran aptly captures the way growing up poor and marrying a controlling, violent fool helped turn Mata Hari into a grasping, materialistic person, desperate to make sure she never goes to bed shivering or wakes up hungry again. It’s a human motive behind the inhuman cool that defines her legend, and Moran handles it sympathetically. The thing that links all Moran’s novels is her strong focus on crafting believable, humane portraits of some of the world’s most iconic women, and her newest novel is unquestionably a success in that regard. Indeed, Mata Hari’s Last Dance also has one of Moran’s most fascinating male characters as well in lawyer-turned-pimp-turned-confidant-turned-lost love, Edouard Clunet. In the ever-shifting boundaries between Clunet and Mata Hari, Moran strikes gold.

Mata Hari’s Last Dance is a solid look at a pretty thrilling life, entertaining and engagingly readable. Unfortunately, it falls into a trap I often see biographical novels slip into, making sure to hit all the important events of the heroine’s life while occasionally ignoring the internal drive that brings those events to life. The book is at its strongest when it focuses on Mata Hari herself, and the penchant for lying that would eventually undo her. But that’s not particularly a focus of the book, which is often driven more by events than by Mata Hari herself. Moran is unquestionably talented, but Mata Hari is an elusive figure, portrayed here as at once cunning and naive, driven and passive. It is to Moran’s credit that she captures these seemingly contradictory traits in a single character, but, by the end, our heroine’s complexity defies even her author.

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Alexander Morrison is a writer and educator in the Midwest. He divides his time pretty evenly between reading, writing, film, and Overwatch, so you can tell he’s pretty well rounded. You can read his thoughts about love & sex in pop culture at Cinema Romantique, or follow him on Twitter at Ikiruined.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Touchstone. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.