- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Harcourt; First Edition edition (September 1, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0151004714
- ISBN-13: 978-0151004713
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,859,292 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Last Life: A Novel Hardcover – September 1, 1999
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Claire Messud's piercing second novel asks questions most are too fearful to face. Moving between the South of France, the East Coast of the U.S., and Algeria, The Last Life explores the weight of isolation and exile in one French family. Of course, the adjective French is already inadequate, as at least some of the LaBasses still long for the paradise lost of Algeria. And Alex LaBasse's wife, Carol, try as she might with her Continental impersonations, will always be an American sporting a metaphorical twin set. The narrator, Sagesse, too, soon finds herself equally stranded. Only her autocratic grandfather, Jacques, is ostensibly comfortable with the identity he has wrought: successful owner of the Bellevue Hotel and head of his dynasty. It is thanks to this man that 14-year-old Sagesse comes to crave invisibility. Having lost of all of her friends, she sees herself as "a member of the Witness Protection Program, surrounded by an odd human assortment chosen only for the efficiency of disguise; but somehow, nevertheless, inescapable."
The cause of this loss? Jacques, fed up with Sagesse and her pals' late-night noise at the hotel pool--or perhaps with their failure to take him seriously--shoots at one girl. This incident ruptures life for each LaBasse, the Bellevue no longer "their bulwark against absurdity." Looking back on the crucial two years following the patriarch's "target practice," Sagesse possesses both a teenager's slant self-interest and an older, acute eye for the mechanisms of shame. The Last Life is that rare thing, a fast-moving philosophical novel masquerading as a bildungsroman. In her efforts at identity and affection, its heroine is increasingly alive to the subterfuges of narrative, forcing herself to sort through versions of reality. Her grandmother, for instance, relates one myth about her husband, only to have Carol undercut it entirely. And Sagesse herself can't figure out whether Jacques is "sentimental or heartless." What if both, she realizes, are possible?
As Messud's narrator navigates her way through the past--and the Algerian sections are among the book's most extraordinary--there is everything to savor in her wavelike sentences, many of which possess a dangerously witty undertow. And the scenes of familial tedium are the opposite of tedious. The dialogue snaps with subverted emotion, anxiety, and irony. At one of the LaBasses' bleaker fests, much is made of the mouna, a special (if dry) Algerian cake. Nonetheless, the grandmother does her best to fob it off at evening's end. "I've never cared for it myself, although it's a lovely memory." Retrospect, as Sagesse realizes, is "a light in which we may not see more clearly, but at least have the illusion of doing so."
E.M. Forster called another Mediterranean novel, The Leopard, "one of the great lonely books," and it is into this category that The Last Life instantly falls. --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
Loss of innocenceAfor a young girl, her family and her nationAis the theme of Messud's resonant second novel. Plangent with the memories of a pivotal two-year period in the life of teenage narrator Sagesse LaBasse, the novel flashes back to three generations of the LaBasse family, pieds noirs who fled Algeria during the 1960s. Domineering patriarch Jacques, Sagesse's grandfather, establishes the Hotel Bellevue on France's Mediterranean coast and proclaims the family myth of invincibility. But the LaBasses suffer from the same vain and empty valuesAoverweening pride and social snobberyAthat led to the French debacle in Algeria. To Sagesse's piously Catholic parents, Alex and Carol, their severely handicapped son, Etienne, is the embodiment of the doctrine of Original Sin, and Carol cares for him at home because LaBasse women must sacrifice themselves for the good of the family. Etienne is also a blow to his parents' marriage, already foundering because of Alex's womanizing and their different cultural backgrounds: Carol is American, and has never been accepted by her stern in-laws. After intolerant, irascible grandp?re shoots at rowdy teenagers on the hotel property, he is sentenced to prison, the LaBasses become social outcasts and Sagesse's friends abandon her. Alex briefly comes into his own and runs the hotel, but Jacques's release accelerates Alex's and the family's destruction. Messud (When the World Was Steady) sustains an elegiac tone in describing a seemingly ordered world that in reality is precarious; the LaBasses erect futile defenses against tragedies they are unable to prevent. In striking scenes, Messud recreates the last days of French rule in Algeria and the anomie of the ex-colonials, exiles from the land they love and strangers in their mother country. Sometimes these frequent flashbacks are awkward and not well integrated into the narrative. Yet some scenesASagesse acting out her adolescent insecurity during a summer with her relatives in New England, for exampleAare small gems. Questions of morality and mortality, of choice or fate or historical destiny, permeate the chronicle, adding coherence to a moving and insightful story. Agent, Georges Borchardt. Author tour. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
Anyone who says this is an adolescent girl's coming of age story is trivializing it. Ignore them. Read this book if you love literature.
I was particularly impressed with this young author's grasp of the meaning and texture of the lost world of French Algeria in the 1950's and '60's...particularly poignant when read in 1999 from another ruined and abandoned French colony, amid the decaying buildings of Phnom Penh...
I hope the author will write many more books and that her publishers will bring her first novel back into print -- I want to read it. Thank you, Ms. Messud, for writing such a wonderful work.