Historical fiction author Michelle Moran casts the spotlight on Mata Hari—a very real historical figure who lived a life shrouded in mystery—in her most recent novel, Mata Hari’s Last Dance.
Who was Mata Hari, you ask? That is an interesting question that not even this novel was able to fully uncover. First and foremost, she was a dancer. And not only that, she was a dancer that broke boundaries with her signature style which sought to scandalize and shock audiences. The beginning of the novel, in particular, focuses on Mata Hari’s rise to fame as her “exotic” dances become all the rage among the Paris elite. I enjoyed reading about this the most since it was compelling to see how Mata Hari, a mysterious yet attractive stranger to others, was able to navigate a world that prided itself on wealth and social reputation.
One of the most intriguing premises offered in this novel is whether or not Mata Hari was really an actual spy for the Germans during World War I. Both the real and fictional Mata Hari were executed by a French firing squad after being found “guilty” of espionage (this isn’t a spoiler since the novel introduces her fate at the opening of the novel). But was she really guilty? I was disappointed that the novel didn’t delve into any clear answer to this pressing question, and I also wished that Moran would have explored Mata Hari’s “spy side” in greater depth.
Instead, Moran just lists all the men, some of whom were German, that Mata Hari had relations with. World War I seemed to have appeared out of nowhere as I was reading this, and the rest of the novel felt very rushed for me after this was introduced. With a beginning and middle so full of tact, detail, and promise, the final chapters left me feeling a bit dissatisfied overall.
The plot was meandering. I’m not really sure what the plot was actually—the story just seemed to be observing her rise to success and her eventual decline as a popular dancer, and then there were hints thrown in of her being suspected as a spy at the end. As I mentioned, getting acquainted with the world of upper-class Paris was certainly made the reading experience more engrossing, but there can be only so much substance in that. The book also seemed to read like a detailed account of all the men that she had been with, in a way which could have been interesting if there were any emotion inserted into these relationships. However, these liaisons came off as, for the most part, insignificant.
I also can’t say that I really liked the character of Mata Hari, either. The only thing that made me feel sympathetic towards her was her rather tragic and horrific backstory, which included a jealous and abusive husband that she wanted to keep buried in her past. But that’s as close to human as Mata Hari gets in Moran’s re-telling. She just came off rather flat as a character and I felt she was lacking both emotional depth and personality to make her existent. Even though this whole book places Mata Hari at its center, I can’t say I ever got to know her.
I adored Moran’s other novels, for they were some of the highest quality historical fiction I have ever read. They featured thoughtful and complex characters, vividly imagined landscapes, and a fascinating and entertaining plot. Though Mata Hari’s Last Dance, by all means, was a decent read, it missed the mark a bit for me. Especially since I know Moran can do so much better.