REVIEW: The Last April Dancers – Jean Thesman

1987 Houghton Mifflin hardback cover

1987 Houghton Mifflin hardback cover

Catherine St John, usually called Cat by her friends, is nearly sixteen years old and lives with her parents in a small town called Waterford near Seattle. Her mother is a real estate agent and her father is unemployed after losing his job in an electronics company a few months before, and it’s clear from the beginning that not everything is right in the family: Cat’s father is behaving oddly, and her mother doesn’t want to discuss the issue with her daughter. Mrs St John also disapproves of Cat’s close friendship with Cameron, whose family’s house backs onto the St Johns’: Cameron is a few months younger than Cat, but is intelligent enough to have skipped two grades and will be graduating high school this year.

It’s not a high school novel, since Cat as narrator is much more concerned with her father and his health and mental state, though she has friends from school to whom she cannot talk about her worries. She can’t even discuss her fears with Cameron, though he is allowed closer access to the family through visits to the old St John farm, which Mr St John and Cat visit frequently.

It’s a slight novel, written in the present tense, which I know some readers find annoying. It evokes very well the confusion of adolescence and the dilemmas Cat has in feeling concerned about her father but not being able to feel that her mother or grandmother want to comes to terms with the situation, as well as her changing feelings for Cameron. The prose (despite the unconventional tense) is lovely, and the characters appear and behave naturally.

We lean together, not talking. The pond glistens like a dark mirror in the fading light, smooth and placid. The mower stops, and we both turn and look back towards the house.

“Look!” I whisper.

In the still evening, the cherry blossoms are dropping, falling straight to the orchard grass. Silent and white they fall, first only a few, and then the orchard is misted with them.

“I though the wind always blew them down, but there is no wind,” Cameron whispers.

I cannot speak for the wonder of it. There is not a sound anywhere, and the petals fall, starring the grass.

(p72, 1987 hardback edition)

The characters are very believable and very well evoked – in fact, the book stays stuck in the memory for a long time – I first read this as a teenager though I hadn’t re-read it until a couple of weeks ago. Cat is very sympathetic, and Thesman’s prose makes even the at first rather unsympathetic character of Cat’s grandmother understandable and realistic. The relationships between Cat and her girl friends are well-drawn, as is her friendship and growing love for Cameron. There’s a lovely bit towards the end where Cameron does a very teenager-ish thing, and it nicely points the fact that although he’ll be going to college in the autumn, he’s still quite young. It’s rather a sad story, but there’s hope and sweetness in it, too.

Published by: Houghton Mifflin (1987)

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