I just read a book from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries imprint and fell in love with it, hook, line and sinker. Elizabeth Savage’s short novel, The Last Night at the Ritz, is, as Nancy attests, full of great lines, but it’s also full of witty observations and wonderfully intimate thoughts and stories that shed light on the main character, her friend Gay and their youth and middle age.
From the beginning of the novel you know there is an interesting dynamic between the two women at the heart of the book, the unnamed narrator and her old college friend, Gay:
Gay’s never approved of me. But she’s always loved me. The two things don’t have as much to do with one another as some people think.
The narrator’s assessment of her friend’s feelings towards her is a theme that reverberates the whole way though–Gay loves her but doesn’t fully approve, which is also why the narrator has been selective over the years as to what she chooses to share with her dear friend.
She and Gay and Gay’s husband Len are meeting at the Ritz. They have done well in their lives and so can afford a golden afternoon dining and tossing back drinks in a swank place, a far cry from their scrounging youth. Gay and Len have three sons and the narrator feels a surrogate mother to the eldest, Charley. But she notices something amiss with Len; a woman gets to know her friend’s husband, especially if she has also slept with him.
The Last Night at the Ritz manages to bring up a bevvy of themes and questions like: how do we approach our friendships and what do they mean to us?; is honesty really best or is it kinder to withhold certain things?; how have women’s roles and choices changed since the 1960s/70s, in the pre and post-Roe. v. Wade days?; how do men and women enter into second marriages when both parties are aware that these marriages are still a poor substitute for their first true loves?
Savage also manages to end the novel in such a way that you want to race back to the beginning to search for clues or other breadcrumbs the narrator may have dropped along the way. I finished The Last Night at the Ritz wishing I had used post-it-notes to mark every page and passage I wanted to revisit. But I will leave you with a sentiment that spoke to Nancy and, as you might imagine, to me as well:
It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.