Modern teenagers of today might think people of early 20th century Europe were a simple lot. After all, they rode in carriages, wrote letters by hand, and attended formal balls. The nobility did little else but gossip and discuss Parisian fashions. Yet, in G.G. Vandagriff’s newest novel, pre-World War I Austria explodes with intrigue, volatile politics that would eventually bring the Austrian people under Hitler’s rule, and a love story that proves that a woman’s heart is as vast as the ocean.
In 1913, Amalia Faulhaber is just 19 years old, engaged to a baron who will secure her family’s social status. Her life is predictable as she follows the pattern set by the aristocracy. Then her fiancé breaks their engagement, telling her he must follow his childhood dream and join the Prussian army. He leaves for Germany that same day. Amalia is devastated, but even worse, humiliated. She hides the breakup until she can deliver a valid explanation to her family.
Yet as she is struggling with feelings of being rejected, she meets two men. One is another baron — an Austrian who promises to choose her over his country. The other is a Pole, who holds the same ideals as Amalia and haunts her dreams and every waking moment.
But a terrible misunderstanding drives Amalia to make a mistake for which she will pay for a lifetime. Soon after, World War I breaks out, and Amalia is forced to face her ghosts and heal from tragedy. She copes by working as a nurse, becoming a witness to unspeakable horrors. Her family loses its position in society, and politics and war take over any hope of Amalia ever marrying for true love. Austria is thrown into chaos as various government ideals struggle for power. Family members are forced to choose sides. Fortunes are lost. Jews are persecuted. Amalia’s only salvation is developing a relationship with God. And she must learn to trust again.
Before reading this book, I’d never given too much thought to those who lived in pre-Hitler controlled Austria. Of course, I’ve seen The Sound of Music enough times to understand that those who did not swear allegiance to Hitler were in mortal danger. Yet the events leading up to this historical time are fascinating. The Last Waltz is truly an epic love tale, spanning four decades of Amalia’s life — following her through triumph and tragedy. She loses so much, yet comes out so strong. And through all of her temptations she remains a virtuous woman.
If I was to nitpick one thing, I would have liked more time and attention spent on the literal last waltz that took place near the end of the book.
Yet, overall G.G. Vandagriff has a talent for immersing the reader in a different time and place. I was interested to read her biography and discover that she’d lived and studied in Austria. The Last Waltz is also a novel that was thirty years in the making. I’m grateful it finally made it to me.
Rated: Mild, for war-time violence and family deaths