Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Mata Hari’s Last Dance includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Michelle Moran. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the glow of pre-war Paris, Mata Hari seems to have everything: a successful career as an exotic dancer, scores of rich lovers, her own apartment, and the attention of the elite European art clique. But as a world war dawns, Europe begins to change—and so does life for Mata Hari. In the midst of this changing world, Mata Hari must learn to navigate growing tensions between rival super powers Germany and France, as well as her own personal battle for her estranged daughter, Non. Despite all her efforts, Mata Hari fails to win back her daughter and her old way of life. In the end she finds herself poor, alone, and sentenced to death for a crime she swore she never committed. At once tragic and beautiful, Mata Hari’s Last Dance chronicles the line between fact and fiction, creation and destruction, and life and death.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Mata Hari’s Last Dance opens with a newspaper article detailing Mata Hari’s death by French firing squad—an article that claims she was not only guilty but “one of the most dangerous of the Kaiser’s agents in France and England” (page 2). Discuss how this article compares to the story that the character Mata Hari tells us. Is there any overlap? In general, why do you think the author chose to use so many newspaper articles throughout the novel? Do the articles give us a different perspective? How so?
2. Mata Hari describes her small, run-down apartment as a place where “the carpets stink of urine and mold” and the landlord is “a man who beats his wife” (page 18). Would you describe Mata Hari as a strong female character? Is she a feminist? Do you attribute her ability to lift herself out of poverty as an indication of her strength?
3. Discuss the relationship between Edouard Clunet and Mata Hari. Would you call their relationship odd? Unrequited? Problematic? Do you think the two are truly in love with each other? Why or why not?
4. The snake handler tells Mata Hari not to be afraid of the snake, but to “treat her well . . . and she will never harm you” (page 48). Is the snake a symbol of the main character? Both Mata Hari and the snake are exotic, dangerous, and arguably misunderstood. In the end, do you believe Mata Hari is as harmless as the snake? Why or why not?
5. What do you think is Mata Hari’s goal? Does she want to simply be famous, or is it something more? Why do you think she seeks out the attention of Bowtie and the media?
6. The famous fashion designer tells Mata, “women like us prefer to forget we had a past. Too painful. We’d rather create” (page 64). Discuss Mata Hari’s creation. What kind of creation does she make when she dances? What kind of life does her art create? What kind of image? In the process of creation, does she also do as the epigraph to the novel suggests: “This is the dance I dance tonight. The dance of destruction as it leads to creation” (page vii)?
7. Revisit the scene in which Mata Hari reveals the truth about her husband, daughter, and her deceased son (page 93). Is this the first glance we get into the “real” Mata Hari? Did you believe she was removing the mask of her dancer persona in this scene? Why or why not?
8. Bowtie tells Mata Hari “you’re good for my career” (page 121). Discuss the ways in which the characters in the novel use one another. Are any of their relationships sincere, or are they all born from opportunity? Consider Bowtie, Mata Hari, Edouard, Mata Hari’s father, and Rudolph MacLeod in your response.
9. What is the symbolism of Mata Hari’s characterization of herself as “an orchid amongst buttercups” (page 129)? Do you think she values herself for her distinct appearance, her distinct way of being in the world, or both?
10. Do you think death acts as a catalyst for change in the novel? How might the deaths of Mata Hari’s mother and son cause Mata Hari to transform herself into someone new?
11. Do you forgive Mata Hari for her decision to leave her daughter Non? Do you think she tried everything in her power to get Non back? Is Mata Hari any different from her own father in the end? Why or why not?
12. How does the tension between the real and the fictional serve as a theme for the novel? You may wish to consider Mata Hari’s family, her job, and her accusation as a spy in your response. Do you agree that Mata Hari’s Last Dance presents the point of view that perhaps the “truth” is a composite of fact and fiction, as exemplified in the fact that Mata Hari is not from India but did live in Java?
13. What is Mata Hari’s “last dance”? Do you agree with her that she “danced [her] . . . own destruction” (page 246)? In some ways, does Mata Hari’s death also create something new? Consider the role of women during her lifetime in your response. Does Mata Hari leave anything but tragedy as a legacy for her daughter?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Part of the appeal of Mata Hari’s Last Dance is the fact that Mata Hari is not just a fictional character in a novel but was a real woman tried and convinced of treason during World War I. Host a movie night with your book club and watch the 1931 film Mata Hari. After the movie, discuss her life as it was presented in the film and in the novel. What conclusions can you draw about her? Is she a sympathetic figure? In the end, do you believe she was innocent and simply out of touch with the reality of the war?
2. Mata Hari has the great fortune—and perhaps misfortune—to travel widely throughout Europe during the height of her fame. Travel goes hand-in-hand with Mata Hari’s desire for transformation, her wish to lose her “real” self in furs and fancy apartments, or undressed and dancing. With your group, look at photographs of Mata Hari’s two favorite cities—Paris and Berlin. Imagine what it was like to live in these glamorous cities before the war. Over dinner, share with your book club a place you have been that changed your life. Share photos and memories about this special place. Do you feel like Mata Hari—exotic, new—when you travel?
3. Just before her execution, Mata Hari talks to Bowtie one last time. When he asks her what she wants to discuss she says “poppies” (page 247)—a topic inspired by a poem she had recently read and perhaps also from her belief in herself as an “orchid amongst buttercups.” Return to page 247 and reread the poem with your book club. What images does the poem bring to mind? What feeling did you get hearing the poem? Why do you think Mata Hari had this poem on her mind right before her death? Try writing your own poem inspired by “In Flanders Field.” Make the first line of your poem “In ______ the _____ grow.” Share your poem with your group.
4. Michelle Moran has written several other historical novels. Chose another era to go back in time with Moran, such as the one depicted in Rebel Queen or Nefertiti. Compare the strong female characters in all of Moran’s novels. Do these characters share common traits? What are they? How do you think this author breaks stereotypes for women across the ages?
A Conversation with Michelle Moran
Mata Hari’s Last Dance follows the theme of your other books in that a strong female from history is brought to life. How do you select these women from history for your novels? What inspires you about Mata Hari in particular, and female figures in general?
The women in history who appeal to me the most are often the ones who did something extraordinary, although very little is known about them by the public. In my novel Rebel Queen, Sita trained to become one of the queen’s personal guards at a time when most women were in purdah and not allowed out of the house. In the case of Mata Hari, I found her rise to fame fascinating. She overcame great personal odds—the death of her child, her husband’s abuse—to remake herself and become one of the most recognized dancers in Europe.
Why did you choose to begin the novel with Mata Hari’s death? Do you think starting with her execution and working backward helps us get close to the truth?
I think when people hear the name Mata Hari, a few things immediately come to mind, one of which is her execution. I thought it would be interesting to start with what people already know and work from there. Mata Hari had an extraordinary life. It was an incredibly complicated one, and the entire truth of what she did (or didn’t do) may never be known.
Besides Mata Hari, who is your favorite character in the novel and why?
Her lawyer, Edouard Clunet. He was there throughout her life, even at the very end when she was executed. The fact that he witnessed the entire arc of her career made him an interesting figure.
Do you think Mata Hari was innocent? The story presents us with both possibilities through the newspaper articles. What is your stance? Or do you think the possibility exists that she was both a little guilty and a little innocent?
I think Mata Hari fell prey to all the wonderful press that was written about her—that she was a great seductress and a stunning beauty. My guess is that she thought she could get away with spying because she was such an irresistible woman. Her entire adult life she’d been told this. So yes, I think she did spy, but I think she did it for France and that she did it very poorly. I don’t believe for a moment that she was interested in secrets or war. Money was her goal—it had always been her goal since her father had lost everything when she was a child.
In your research, do you think you discovered the “real” Mata Hari? Or does she remain as mysterious to you as ever?
I think the real Mata Hari is in these pages somewhere—in the glimpses of her childhood, in the pain she describes at seeing her father living with another woman after he abandoned her family, in the memories of her husband’s cruelty. Her personality was forged in the fires of abandonment and abuse. But always, even at the end, she held on to the dream of reuniting with Non.
Discuss the title. In your opinion, is Mata Hari’s last dance her death? Or does her legacy reach beyond her execution?
I think her last dance was certainly her death. It was a performance, only this time it was on a political stage and she wasn’t able to orchestrate it.
How did you bring to life pre-war Paris and Berlin? Did you travel to these cities to capture their spirit? Share with us your research method.
Whenever I write a book, I travel to the locations where my characters spent much of their time. For Mata Hari, that meant going to Paris, Berlin, and the Netherlands. But Paris proved to be the most important, in particular the Musée Guimet where Mata Hari made her debut.
What do you think was Mata Hari’s true goal in life? In some ways, she seems vain. In other moments, she is a heartbroken mother. What is your take on the real person’s desire?
I think she was many things, just as all of us are. She was beautiful and vain and ambitious and wounded. She was a wife and mother and dancer and courtesan. She searched desperately for love and couldn’t seem to recognize the real form of it when it came. I think that the biggest mistakes she made in her life (in terms of what she did during the war and the men she allowed to court her) go back to this desperate search for acceptance.
Do you understand Mata Hari’s popularity as a form of exoticism? Is this problematic for you? How did you tackle such a large issue in the novel?
This is such a great question. There’s no doubt that Mata Hari’s success came from her perceived exoticism. This is something she tried very hard to cultivate, going as far as changing her name and place of birth whenever she spoke with the press. We know she fell in love with Hinduism at some point in Java, but whether she practiced it at home is highly doubtful. She probably embraced it much the same way her audiences did—as something new and interesting. However, when you really look at her dances and how they incorporated Hindu gods, what she was doing was shocking. Nothing like that was happening in any temple in India or Java. I’m sure she knew that and I’m sure it didn’t concern her. She was an entertainer.
You ask “what is truth and what is propaganda?” in the novel (page 167). Can you answer your own question in light of Mata Hari’s arrest and conviction?
That’s a difficult question when writing about Mata Hari. She tried so hard to obfuscate her past that in some ways she really succeeded. In terms of her death though, I have very strong feelings that it served both France and Germany’s need at the time. I talk about this in my afterword. It’s a sad thing to realize just how grossly justice was miscarried in her case.
Is there a historical moment of interest to you right now? What are you reading?
Yes! Ancient Egypt. Every few years I feel the need to return to the world of the Pharaohs, now more than ever. Currently I’m reading a book about life under Pharaoh Hatshepsut. She was a fascinating woman who reigned as a king long before Nefertiti and Cleopatra.