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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Last Waltz

"The Last Waltz"  by G.G. Vandagriff was a pleasant surprise. The book was recommended to me by a dear friend. Because I enjoy fluffy, fun stories most of the time, an uber thick (591 pages) historical romance made me bite my lip, doubting I’d take pleasure in it. My friend, however, loved it. I’m pretty sure her IQ is several notches above mine, and she probably paid attention in History class. I, however, did not.


I did love this book… but to explain why, you must first meet Mrs. Henry. Mrs. Henry used to live one street over from me. She had five children. She home-schooled her older children, and always had a baby on her hip. I admired her greatly. I sat at the opposite end of a couch in her living room, a pile of clean gym socks and underwear between us, her folding, me not daring to touch someone else’s undies. She’d educate me on motherhood as she matched socks. I placed a hand on my growing belly, the baby inside me kicking my palm. This was my second child. It gave me hope to see her happy and surviving with five. Surely I could handle a scant two. I leaned forward as best I could, so the whole house wouldn’t hear the sacrilegious question I’d come to ask her that day. “How do you love another baby?” Luckily she knew just what I was asking about.


I did not have a particularly happy childhood. I was sickly in high school. I was too serious in college. My first real dose of sustainable happiness came when I discovered the Savior. My second came when I married. He was mine, all mine, forever!! And how dear he was. I wore a sappy smile that first year we were married, before the baby came. But the baby… oh, there was nothing like the joy she brought. I still have days where I joyfully cackle like a haggard old witch because of the sheer ecstasy of motherhood. To toss a child in the air, spin with them in your arms, rub your cheek against theirs, watch them grow into adulthood. There is truly nothing like it.


I sat before Mrs. Henry, my heart full to bursting with joy of husband and child. How would there be room for another? How did I love someone less to fit one more? It seemed wicked and unfair to have another child when I had nothing left of my heart to give away. Mrs. Henry, wise old soul that she was in her pretty, young body, narrowed her gaze at me, thinking before she spoke. She reached over the pile of laundry, putting her hand on mine. With an understanding smile she explained, “Your heart is a muscle. It is a strong, strong muscle. And like other muscles, it can grow. I’m not saying that it won’t be a painful experience. When a muscle grows it tears and aches, but becomes larger nonetheless. There will be room. Your heart will always make room.”


And so it did. When they handed me my second daughter it was love at first sight. I had plenty of room. The ache came with two children in diapers, sleepless nights, and learning how to juggle both their needs when they were completely opposite in their wants. After many years I’ve learned that the kind of heart-growing love that hurts most is the temporary separation caused by death. It awakens the heart, increasing love with a rush of memories and longing. That rush stretches the heart muscle, maturing the soul, sweetening memories, and cementing the departed into a more permanent and larger place in the heart.


In “The Last Waltz” Amalia Faulhaber has a growing heart. The reader follows the delightful and painful growth of her capacity to love, until, as a mature woman, she governs her choices with her wizened loving heart.


I count this as three historical romance novels. It spans World War I to the beginnings of World War II. Amelia has three loves in this book, and she is faithful to all. Her first love for an idealistic young doctor is born of chemistry. I applaud that the author, G.G. Vandagriff, doesn’t put this love on a pedestal as the begin-all and end-all of love. Chemistry happens, but it isn’t love. Love is a choice. Love is a verb. Chemistry is a longing, a blush, a thrill that can fade with time. Though Amalia’s first chemistry encounter doesn’t fade with time, it is too weak to overcome the pride of youth.


Amalia’s second love is born of duty. Despite finding herself in a nearly loveless marriage, she stretches her heart until she understands her husband and his motivations. A love born of compassion becomes serviceable for a time as romance that sustains them until his death.


Amalia’s strongest love is a love born of choice. When she chooses to marry a man she respects, she backs up the choice with loyalty and dedication. This love defines her. This love creates her. This love is her strength. And though she is enticed repeatedly to abandon this love, she does not. When presented with the chemistry of her youth once more, the feeble flicker of it cannot hold temptation compared to her love of choice, and the life she has built around it. Now she has practiced duty. She has mastered commitment. Chemistry for her chosen love grows of its own accord, stronger because of dedication.

The Amalia that ends the book is different than the one that begins it. Watching the growth of this character was an absolute delight. G.G. Vandagriff masters character development as well as setting and historical significance. The settings themselves become characters as we watch a pristine 1913 Vienna lose its spiff and shine in days of war. The ideas become characters as we watch ideals become the clashes of history.


After setting the book down I felt to infuse my love with duty, loyalty, and dedication. Amalia’s struggles to become what she knows she must be, her own ideal, take the reader on a rare journey of growth and introspection about how a woman should handle love and how choosing it can cement the surest happiness into a growing heart.




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