Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review - Mata Hari's Last Dance

Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran
Published by: Touchstone
Publication Date: July 19th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

The woman formerly known as Lady Margaretha MacLeod has come to Paris to reinvent herself. Styled as Mata Hari, the "Eye of the Dawn," she has been trying to get work in the various dance halls. But she is too exotic, too foreign. Little do they know she's just a girl from the Netherlands who can spin a tale. At the last place she auditions, the disreputable L'Ete, she is once again turned away, but her luck is about to change. Edouard Clunet, a respectable and successful lawyer saw her dance and wants to act as her agent. The dance halls aren't the place for Mata Hari, she needs a select and refined audience, one Edouard can introduce her to. Her first production is for Clunet's client, Guimet, who has built a library to house his extensive collections and wants to have a ceremony with two hundred guests to open his Place d'Iena. Mata Hari's dance is a sensation. Her storytelling, her risque dances, they electrify the audience and soon she is coveted by all of Paris to perform at their function. But Clunet is clever, he only chooses the best venues with the best hosts, concerned just as much with Mata Hari's image as with her abilities.

Soon Mata Hari is performing one of a kind shows for the Rothschilds, Jeanne de Loynes, and Givenchy. Her habit to also occupy her host's bed lets Mata Hari accumulate beautiful possessions and living quarters, those that her pricey performance fees don't quite stretch to. She is the name on everyone's lips, so of course she is given opportunities beyond Paris which she jumps at. Madrid, Berlin, never did she think she'd play such lavish locations! But now that she has everything she could ever have wanted she realizes what she misses most, that which she ran away from. Her daughter, Jeanne Louise, whom she left behind with her husband when she fled after the death of their son. She has spent so much of her life telling tales and reinventing herself that to open up to Edouard, to tell him a truth, raw and painful, is a revelation. Her success will continue longer than she ever imagined, but it's her past she can never recapture that she wants most. As time goes on her habits with her lovers and her ability to spin a yarn will catch up to her with the most dire of consequences. Everyone has to face the music in the end.

When I was younger I didn't quite know who Mata Hari was. But then again, being told of a great courtesan doesn't seem like the kind of tale you'd tell as a bedside story to a child. So I had these wild ideas about who she was. A seductress, a storyteller, and a spy, all with the most amazing outfits. Someone out of The Arabian Nights like Scheherazade. Someone from antiquity when Gods walked among the deserts. A grand heroine of myth. The truth is she'd probably like the myth in my mind. It wasn't until much later that I learned the truth of her tragic life. Ironically I didn't learn about Mata Hari in any history class but in the episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles that was written by Carrie Fisher, which should have been subtitled "Indy Gets His Groove On." Here was the beginning of the truth I never knew. The woman I thought relegated to dusty tomes was a "spy" during the first world war! While there are those who'd argue that this is old, to me, if a person was alive in the same century I was born that's pretty recent news. Gone were The Arabian Nights delusions and in their place was this woman who defied convention and died for the greater good.

I think where my erroneous impressions of Mata Hari came from was the fact she was a courtesan. Courtesans seem of an older era, when Kings walked through Versailles and a Maharajah took a woman to bed bedecked with jewels. When you think of the turn of the past century when a woman slept around or had a lover she was a mistress or worse. But mistress doesn't do Mata Hari justice. Neither does any of the more derogatory slurs that could be mentioned. She was a true courtesan. She was well educated, skilled, and able to tell the most intoxicating stories. So she accepted gifts of jewels and property, these were never payment, they weren't even really a transaction of any kind, more a thank you for a good seduction. She lived outside the expectations of society. Or at least the expectations of a woman in society. She acted more like a man when it came to whom she took to bed. It was all about desire, hers and theirs, and if they happened to look really fabulous in a uniform, all the better.

By living outside of the proscribed norms it was interesting in how I related to Mata Hari. As in, I didn't relate to her AT ALL. I mean, sure spending a night on your back or a day dancing to be draped in jewels might be some people's ideal life, just not mine. The truth is, she's not the most likable person. It's not just that her morals don't jive with mine, it's something more, something deep down that while I can be fascinated by her I would never like her. In fact, I found it interesting that Mata Hari kind of reminded me of Linda Radlett from Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. They are both very acquisitive beings who like the finer things in life and don't scruple when it comes to what they want to do. While I like to view myself as carving out my own life, I'd never go for such a drastic trailblazing method. But that is what makes Mata Hari so interesting. She goes big or goes home. More than that though she really knows how to craft a tale. Her lies are so intoxicating and fascinating, that while you might balk at her life choices, you have to admire her style.

Where Moran's storytelling surpasses Mata Hari's is in showing the real purpose of all Mata Hari's storytelling, to mask her pain. Mata Hari's life growing up as Margaretha Zelle, later MacLeod, wasn't the smoothest of journeys to be sure. The situations that she was forced into by the abandonment of her family at a young age eventually resulting in her early marriage would be events best forgotten. When this is compounded by the death of her beloved son you can see why she ran away and rewrote her own story. Many people would give anything to be able to rewrite their past, even pasts not nearly as traumatic as that lived by Mata Hari. A new city, a new name, a new past. She did a marvelous job reinventing herself and creating a legend. But legends are rarely relatable. Through her writing Moran lets us see behind the veil and while you might never quite come to terms with and like Mata Hari, you really feel for her. Her struggles, her pains, her decisions, even the atrocious ones, you just get it, and that's what historical fiction is about, connecting to another person in another place and time.

As for whether Mata Hari was killed because she was a spy? Well, I'm not of the harsh opinion Wikipedia holds that she was too naive and stupid to be a double agent. Because if anything her reinvention shows that she was a clever woman who knew what she wanted and got it. I agree with Moran's inference that Mata Hari's downfall was a judgment on her as a person versus any knowledge or secrets she might have held. Mata Hari didn't fit into the standard mold. She was a woman who lived her life as she wished. Certain men in power couldn't handle this. The world was at war and people were expected to toe the line and behave or all would be lost. Mata Hari went from being a juicy topic of conversation used to titillate to a wanton woman who was out to steal your husband. She was judged for what she did and paid the ultimate price. So what if men did what she did all the time, she was a woman and therefore her death was for the greater good. Yes, her ability to spin stories did come back to bite her on the ass, because she had a honeyed tongue and could make anything sound like truth so how could you believe a word she said? But what this book made me realize is that her story still resonates. She was a woman who lived her life outside of societies expectations and paid for it. Therefore I give you Mata Hari, a true feminist icon! She died for the cause, and can that be said about Isadora Duncan?


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