They danced the night away, knowing their world was about to change forever. They were the debutantes of 1939, laughing on the outside, but knowing tragedy - and a war - was just around the corner.
When Valerie de Vere Cole, the niece of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, makes her deep curtsy to the king and queen of England, she knows she’s part of a world about to end. The daughter of a debt-ridden father and a neglectful mother, Valerie sees firsthand that war is imminent.
Nevertheless, Valerie reinvents herself as a carefree and glittering young society woman, befriending other debutantes from England’s aristocracy as well as the vivacious Eunice Kennedy, daughter of the US ambassador. Despite her social success, the world’s troubles and Valerie’s fear of loss and loneliness prove impossible to ignore.
How will she navigate her new life when everything in her past has taught her that happiness and stability are as fragile as peace in our time? For the moment she will forget her cares in too much champagne and waltzes. Because very soon, Valerie knows that she must find the inner strength to stand strong and carry on through the challenges of life and love and war.
Scroll through the pictures for a glimpse into the 1939 Season, then follow the recipe below to indulge in a taste of 1939!
Debutantes, liberated from the school room, got their first taste of sophistication during their presentation season. Champagne, sherry and various cocktails were sipped at dinner parties and dances. In The Last Debutantes, Valerie and her friends order the Sidecar after sneaking away from their chaperones to visit London’s famed 400 Club.
2 ounces Cognac for the traditional taste, brandy for a more modern flair
1 ounce orange liqueur such as Triple Sec or Cointreau
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice1 tablespoon simple syrup for a sweeter drink or omit for a tarter
1 Lemon or orange wedge for garnish
Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake vigorously. Pour through a strainer into a chilled glass and garnish with the lemon or orange wedge. Sugar the rim of the glass for a little more style and sophistication. Enjoy!
1) A theme running through the novel is to ‘learn from and carry on.’ In what ways does Valerie learn and carry on? Keeping a stiff upper lip is considered a classic trait for the people of Great Britain. How do you think this helped and hindered them during the war?
2) Valerie and her friends seem to be dancing in the face of upcoming sorrow. Do you think they behaved well, badly, or that they did what young people of any generation would do?
3) What do you think of the idea of debutantes? Is it something fun, or an antiquated way of sending women out into the world?4) Did this novel change our viewpoint on Neville Chamberlain? Was he in denial about Hitler’s rise, or was he trying desperately to avert another war?
5) Were you surprised at how many of the aristocracy seemed to agree with the rise of Fascism, even if they may not have liked the idea of Adolph Hitler?
6) Valerie grows to believe that lineage and position trumps everything else. Is she right in her viewpoint? Do you think this remains the way things are? Why or why not?
7) During this time, young women like Valerie, Eunice Kennedy, and Dinah, Lady Astor’s niece, were dismissed when they tried to become more involved in politics. Given the roles, albeit some behind the scenes, their relatives play in politics, why do you think this hypocrisy persisted?
8) Valerie’s mother gives her up in a quest for freedom. Is there any part of you that feels sympathy for the situation her mother had in her life?
9) Valerie becomes friendly with one of the secretaries, Marian. Who do you feel has the more fascinating life and why?
10) Does Valerie learn and grow in significant ways during her season? Or is her biggest growth yet to come?