From the international bestselling author of Rebel Queen and Nefertiti comes a captivating novel about the infamous Mata Hari, exotic dancer, adored courtesan, and, possibly, relentless spy.
Paris, 1917. The notorious dancer Mata Hari sits in a cold cell awaiting freedom…or death. Alone and despondent, Mata Hari is as confused as the rest of the world about the charges she’s been arrested on: treason leading to the deaths of thousands of French soldiers.
As Mata Hari waits for her fate to be decided, she relays the story of her life to a reporter who is allowed to visit her in prison. Beginning with her carefree childhood, Mata Hari recounts her father’s cruel abandonment of her family as well her calamitous marriage to a military officer. Taken to the island of Java, Mata Hari refuses to be ruled by her abusive husband and instead learns to dance, paving the way to her stardom as Europe’s most infamous dancer.
From exotic Indian temples and glamorous Parisian theatres to stark German barracks in war-torn Europe, international bestselling author Michelle Moran who “expertly balances fact and fiction” (Associated Press) brings to vibrant life the famed world of Mata Hari: dancer, courtesan, and possibly, spy.
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Michelle Moran is the internationally bestselling author of seven historical novels, including Rebel Queen, which was inspired by her travels throughout India. Her books have have been translated into more than twenty languages. A frequent traveler, Michelle currently resides with her husband and two children in the US. Visit her online at MichelleMoran.com.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Authors writing keeps the reader turning pages quickly. Very good story about a mysterious woman.
It’s fitting that this book is titled Mata Hari’s Last Dance as I believe it is the last book I’ll read by Michelle Moran. You see, I fell in love with Moran’s writing after reading Nefertiti back in 2008. I’ve read nearly every book of her since, but have slowly become less and less enamoured with the stories and the points in history that Moran has selected to set her books in. I was excited when I found that Mata Hari’s Last Dance had been released and I immediately put it on hold at the library. And then it sat on my dining room table until about a week before it was due. Perhaps that was the first sign that I wasn’t that interested in this latest release. I know very little about Mata Hari and most of it comes from movies and television shows and those veiled references were never used in a positive light. I will say this, Mata Hari’s Last Dance was a fairly quick read. But there’s a reason for that. You see, it turns out that not much is known about Mata Hari and even the accusations made against her were suspect. Since her story takes place at the outbreak of World War I there isn’t a lot of going on as the war is just gearing up and the sides are still being chosen. As result, the story moves quickly and just skims the surface of getting to know Mata Hari. I felt like a rock being skipped across a lake and then suddenly sinking to the bottom. That right, this story does not have a happy ending. Why will Mata Hari’s Last Dance be my last dance with Michelle Moran? The time periods she has chosen to write in, as of late, are of little interest to me or completely unknown. I love ancient Egypt where her first 3 books were set. French is history is an unknown to me and I find it confusing. And her last two books, while I did finish them, were quick reads and set in time periods that I am not familiar with and the characters were not as strong. As a result, I race through the book and am left feeling empty with no connection to story. Does this mean I’ll never read another Michelle Moran novel? No, but I might be more selective about which ones I pick up in the future. Would I recommend Mata Hari’s Last Dance? That depends on the reader. If you are looking for a deep dive into Mata Hari’s discover her motivations and the source of the accusations about her spying, this book will not satisfy you. If you are looking for something quick to read to give you a “taste” of what Mata Hari’s life might have been like, this might be a book that will satisfy that curiousity.
Mata Hari is a fascinating person who many people, especially women, will not like. Not every protaganist has to be liked, and Mata Hari is not a usual type of heroine we find in books. Promiscuous and a notorious flirt, she was a woman who fell on hard circumstances who had no choice but to use her beauty and body to earn a living. She pushed the limits in dance and in chasing and using men for her own benefit. One constancy in the novel was her love and regrets pertaining to her daughter. And this helped humanize her, redeem her a bit in the reader's eyes. The book is perfect length and an easy read. Michelle Moran balances Mata Hari's passions and motivations in a realistic way. I did begin to like her and feel sorry for her and the mess she had made of her life. Of course, the novel did not dwell too heavily on the trial and convinction, but the execution scene was heart-wrenching and poignant. The book left me feeling more like Mata Hari was used as a scapegoat and I did not fully believe she was calculating enough to be such a dangerous spy. I had a sense that politics and cover-ups may have been at play as other readily blamed her to save their own skin. This is an excellent historical biography about a notorious woman of history and left me feeling unconvinced about the hand that fate dealt her. Highly recommended.
I found this to be a very enjoyable, light summer read. It is definitely more of a fictionalized account of a historical life than a revealing study of a historical figure. Situations are invented. Complications are glossed over. But the author does an admirable job of finding a winsome voice for Mata Hari and setting the scene in pre-World War I Paris. Readers seeking a complete biography of Mata Hari and an deep introspection into her life will not find that here. This novelized memoir catches up with the exotic dancer just as she bursts onto the Paris social scene around 1904. It follows her life, as if she were telling it to a trusted friend, through her execution for espionage in 1917. In between, her dance career waxes and wanes, her assignations with various sponsors and lovers are vaguely documented and dispatched dispassionately, and her desire to rejoin her daughter and take her to America becomes her mantra. Despite the light tone and lack of historical rigor, I found Margaretha's story to be fascinating. The tiny insights into the European social scene and pre-war history were intriguing. Before reading this book, I only knew the stereotypical popular myths about Mata Hari and her exotic reputation as a spy. I now feel like I have a greater empathy for this well-known, yet little understood, historical figure. Her life remains as veiled in mystery as the characters she portrayed in her dance. This would be an easy book for a reading group to consume and discuss over a short period of time. There are even discussion questions provided. Four stars for being a good, entertaining read. [Disclaimer: Thanks to Courtney Brach and Touchstone / Simon & Schuster for providing me a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.]
As she awaits her execution as a spy in Paris in 1917, Mata Hari tells a reporter the story of her life. She endured a tough existence, but the dancer known as Mata Hari is not the kind of person to give up. She finds her niche and makes her way in pre-WWI Europe. From humble beginnings to a challenging marriage to the pinnacle of notoriety in Paris, Berlin and Madrid, Mata Hari is never one to shrink from a challenge. While she is scandalous and the subject of much talk, while she sleeps with men across the Continent, she is also a vulnerable woman with many secrets. Once again, talented author Michelle Moran takes a woman whose name is well known from history and brings her readers that woman’s story, mixing fiction and real life seamlessly. You will feel Mata Hari’s desperation and longing, her need to succeed and why, the pain of her final betrayal. Don’t miss reading Mata Hari’s Last Dance, but don’t pick it up if you have to go to work tomorrow. You won’t want to stop reading. 5 Stars