Synopses & Reviews
The Last Life is the story of the teenage Sagesse LaBasse and her family, French Algerian emigrants. It is set in colonial Algeria, the south of France, and New England. The LaBasse family had always believed in the permanence of their world, in which stories created from the past had the weight of truth, in which cynicism was the defense against disaster. But when shots from the grand-father's rifle shatter an evening's quiet, their world begins to crumble, the reality to emerge: the bastard son abandoned by the family before he was even born; Sagesse's handicapped brother for whom the family cared with Catholic dignity; her American mother who pretended to be French; the trigger-happy grandfather; and Sagesse's father, whose act of defiance brought down the Hotel Bellevue, her grandfather's house built on rock, to its knees. Observed with a fifteen-year-old's ruthless regard for truth, The Last Life is a beautifully told novel of secrets and ghosts, love and honor, the stories we tell ourselves, and the lies to which we cling.
"Claire Messud's brings an astonishing intelligence to the stories which make the rich tapestry of The Last Life. The novel's power lies in her probing with great immediacy both cultural and generational history. She has written an emotional and moral exploration of exile, of the stories left behind and the stories her characters live. The many voices of the La Basse family French, Algerian, American are woven into a narrative of the painful personal revelations and the impermanence of history itself." Maureen Howard
"Claire Messud is a wonderful writer. In The Last Life she takes on themes of family, history, exoticism and romance, and looks behind the surface to find the difficult ideas lurking in the background. Told through one girl's smart and sensitive voice, it's a story about the dangers and seductions of nostalgia, and the ways in which people do things for the wrong reasons. A dryly funny, deeply felt, serious, ambitious, and beautifully imagined book." Jane Mendelsohn
"Claire Messud superbly represents what we mean when we speak of a 'born novelist' her gifts are equal to her ambition. In The Last Life, her remarkable second novel, Messud engulfs the indelibly inscribed LaBasse family in the fortunes of France, Algeria, and America, intertwining the windings and secret caverns of character and history. Imagine Buddenbrooks crossed with A Passage to India; imagine Camus in a contemporary vein. To open this novel is to sink into a Mediterranean world so urgent and engrossing, so wisely illuminating (and as alive as flesh and Blood), that one regrets arriving at the last page." Cynthia Ozick, Author of The Puttermesser Papers
"Claire Messud, in The Last Life, gives us a fast-moving coming of age novel that provides not only unexpected gunshots, transgressions, betrayals, and family secrets of the kind Francois Mauriac specialized in, but, as well, a subtle anatomy of the aftereffects of the violent decolonization of Algeria on one middle-class ex-colonial family. Characters are unsparingly drawn, and the critical moments in Sagesse LaBasse's loss of innocence are intensely fixed. There are no longueurs. The settings the French Riviera, Algeria are richly evoked. You feel the light." Norman Rush, Author of Mating
"Messud has a phenomenal gift for eliciting the sense of consequence in what are often trivialized as ephemeral adolescent preoccupations." Anna Shapiro, The New Yorker
Narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl with a ruthless regard for truth, The Last Life is a beautifully told novel of lies and ghosts, love and honor. Set in colonial Algeria, and in the south of France and New England, it is the tale of the LaBasse family, whose quiet integrity is shattered by the shots from a grandfather's rifle. As their world suddenly begins to crumble, long-hidden shame emerges: a son abandoned by the family before he was even born, a mother whose identity is not what she has claimed, a father whose act of defiance brings Hotel Bellevue-the family business-to its knees. Messud skillfully and inexorably describes how the stories we tell ourselves, and the lies to which we cling, can turn on us in a moment. It is a work of stunning power from a writer to watch.
About the Author
Claire Messud was born in the United States in 1966. She was educated at Yale and Cambridge. Her first novel, When the World Was Steady, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1996. Her second novel, The Last Life, was widely praised and has been translated into several languages.
Reading Group Guide
Q> What is the significance of the novel's title? To whose life or what life does it refer? Q> How would you describe Sagesse's relationship with each member of her family? How does each relationship affect her view of the family and its history and her own developing sense of self? Q> What are the causes and consequences of the LaBasse family's zealous maintenance of its secrets and its own mythology as a defense against the outside world? What actions and events contribute to the collapse of the family's defenses? Q> How does the sequence in which the details of the LaBasses' past are disclosed affect Sagesse's and our understanding of what happens to the family and to Sagesse during her fourteenth and fifteenth years? Why are past events disclosed in just this sequence and in such detail? Q> How does this novel illustrate our need to create personal, familial, and communal fictions or myths to sustain our sense of identity on those three levels? How does each character slant stories of the past to his or her advantage? Q> What kinds of exile, banishment, and displacement occur throughout the novel and throughout the LaBasse family's history? To what extent does Sagesse or the author suggest that every life is one of exile or displacement? Q> At the beginning of the novel, Sagesse tells us that she is an American by choice, "But it is a mask." References to masks and disguises recur throughout her story. What other masks does Sagesse herself put on? What masks do the other LaBasses wear? Q> Of the days preceding her grandfather's trial, Sagesse wonders, "What...was my brother to me, in all this confusion." How would you answer that question? What is Etienne's role in Sagesse's life, in the life of the LaBasse family, and in the novel? What does Sagesse mean when she says of herself and her brother, "But we were the same..."? Q> Sagesse thinks of the morning after the disastrous Cape Cod party as a "rupture" between past and present. What other incidents, in addition to the shooting, contribute to this view for Sagesse? What other characters experience similar moments, past or present? Q> "Even at fourteen," Sagesse says, "I was well aware...that the bonds of faith, religious and otherwise, governed the tiniest movements of our household." How would you describe those bonds and their importance within the LaBasse family? What kinds of faith other than religious are important within the family? Why might it be inevitable that these bonds of faith loosen and disintegrate? Q> As Sagesse's and her grandfather's eyes meet in the courtroom, she is "aware that the look that passed between us was one of agonizing recognition." What do you think each of them recognizes? What does Sagesse mean when she goes on to describe that moment as an "instant of dreadful mutuality"? Q> What is the importance of Augustine and Camus to Sagesse's-and our-understanding of her family's Algerian background and its influence on their-and Sagesse's-beliefs and behavior? What is the importance of her observation that both Augustine and Camus said "Yes" to life "with a desperation and a defiance that can have been born only of 'no'"? What roles do desperation and defiance play in the lives of the LaBasses? Q> After her father's suicide, Sagesse recognizes "that some central, invisible force that had kept the LaBasses in organized orbit had vanished, flinging each of us, and my father furthermost, out into the ether alone." What might that central force have been?What force or forces have kept the family "in organized orbit" up until this time? What force or forces have torn the family apart? Q> "It is a terrible thing to be free," Sagesse says after her father's death, and notes that "constraints are what define us, in life and in language alike." How does Messud present the conflict between freedom and constraint? Copyright (c) 2000. Published in the U.S. by Harcourt, Inc. Written by Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey