The First Dance by Catherine Law

Review published on April 1, 2018.

This story starts in 1924 and introduces the reader to eleven-year-old Alexa, who is growing up on the beautiful Cornish coast. Her loyal, trustworthy friend, sixteen-year-old Harvey, lives in the nearby village and her relationship with him provides her with all the companionship she desires. However, the idyllic nature of her childhood is marred by a growing awareness that there are secrets within her family, with a mysterious and unexplained estrangement from her Venetian maternal grandmother. When her mother decides to take her to London, to celebrate her twelfth birthday and to finally meet her Italian Nonna, Alexa is full of excitement. However, the visit is dramatically curtailed when she makes an innocent, but incendiary comment which results in Alexa and her mother rushing back to Cornwall, with the family rift apparently worsened rather than resolved. Shortly after their return home, Alexa’s mother dies and she immediately holds herself responsible. When her father remarries she is still grieving and being sent to boarding school reinforces these feelings.

Although she remains unhappy at school, she is supported by a teacher who enables her to see that she can make decisions which will enable her to take control of her future. She decides to take a job as companion to an elderly woman who lives in London and, without warning her family of her intentions, plans to leave the day after a dance which is to be held to celebrate her eighteenth birthday. However, when Harvey proposes to her, in front of all the guests, she dramatically turns him down and immediately flees the party and heads overnight for London, determined to not only gain independence through work, but also to try to heal the rift with her grandmother.

There are two timelines in this story, 1924 and from 1931, but most of the action takes place during the early 1930s. Alexa’s search for the truth behind her mother’s estrangement from her own family eventually takes her to Venice, her mother’s city of birth and where her grandmother has now returned to live. Central to the story are the ongoing effects of the grief Alexa feels about her mother’s death, her belief that she was responsible for it and her constant search for love and acceptance. I thought that the author captured this vulnerability in a convincing way, as she did the enduring and corrosive effects of secrets in families and the ways in which these echo down the generations. Initially I wondered whether this was going to be a reasonably enjoyable but essentially lightweight story, almost verging on “chick-lit” – and, on reflection, I think that the cover contributed to this assumption. However, it wasn’t long before I realised that it had some darker, more disturbing elements making it, for me, a much more satisfying read. Most of the characters were well developed, although a couple were, rather surprisingly, too one-dimensional and stereotypical and this was something which caused me some moments of irritation! There were also some coincidences which required a certain suspension of disbelief but, on balance, these didn’t interfere too much with my overall enjoyment of the book.

I particularly appreciated the descriptions of Cornwall and Venice (both are locations which I love and know very well) and think that the author captured them in a satisfyingly evocative way – right down to conjuring up comparisons between the fresh smells of coastal Cornwall and the less than savoury smells of the canals of Venice! In conclusion, I found this a book worth reading, although I think that it is one for curling up on the sofa with, rather than being a good choice for reading groups.

Linda Hepworth 3/2

The First Dance by Catherine Law
Zaffre 9781785760518 pbk Mar 2018

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