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The Last Life by Claire Messud

The Last Life

by Claire Messud

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472533,083 (3.73)11



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Showing 4 of 4
Across generations from Algeria to France to USA. Snarled family dynamics, certain expectations about 'proper' behavior and how to look away from what you know you are seeing.
  objectplace | Mar 17, 2014 |
Teenage daughter of a mixed marriage narrates her journey from Provence to New York and her family's voyage from colonial era Algeria to bourgeois provincial respectability. The precocious narrator in retrospect documents the dynamics of a fractured family and the geopolitics of france and its colonial odyssey. The book has its longeurs throughout - perhaps influenced by the leisurely detail of proust? - and for me never felt authentic in its Frenchness, falling into an easy orientalist exoticism. For me it was most powerful in addressing adolescent desire and in the portrayal of the mysteriously and profoundly handicapped Etienne. For me, an interesting fail
  otterley | Dec 16, 2013 |
This was a much better book in many ways than The Emperor's Children but still revolves around the legacy of a wealthy family. Most of the book is set in France and Algiers but some of it is set in the United States on the East Coast. At its core, this book is an exploration of identity centered around a protagonist female who is "coming of age." At the same time, growing up with a brother who has a serious disability (from the sounds of the description, severe profound cognition and physical disabilities), changes any sibling and her/his own experience of life. In many ways, what we also see is the tremendous effect that leaving Algiers had on the family. The protagonist learns about the traumatic exit of her own father.

This book is political and, in my opinion, deals with a plethora of issues that many books don't ever explore. For example: racism and sexism, classism, adolescence, family, disability, national identity vs. personal identity, infidelity, and history. It has already encouraged me to read more about The Battle of Algiers and I expect to continue that. The 4/5 rating basically means I think this book is well worth reading. I don't give books a 5/5 rating unless I think every word is pretty much brilliant and you should stop whatever you're doing right this second and read something that is profoundly life changing. That said, this one is still a keeper. Messud also has a way of language...it's poetic without knocking you over the head with it most of the time.

Memorable quotes:

pg. 47 "It would have been so easy not to go: the plunge into the sleeping night seemed like an enormous effort, a question mark."

pg. 113 "I laughed. I lay back too, and could hear the tiny tickings of the grass blades. The earth smelled like pennies. "The sky is incredible." I agreed. There was no breeze, but high above clouds were chasing across the ether, their shapes erratic and amusing."

pg. 120 They had been examining men's bones for years but it occurred to them that the peculiar afflictions of women required special attention, that their secrets lay in the osteal geography of the fairer sets. Their conclusions revolutionized not only medical but social understanding. Woman, the scientists explained to scores of German medical students, all eyes on the female skeleton dangling cheerily at the lectern, Woman has a smaller brain, and wider hips. Her constitution is lower to the ground and that great gaping cavern in her abdomen is the center of her soul. Woman is mother, a separate creature from man, with a distinct and scientifically proven role. She is the Angel in the House , they said, or others said after them: it's bred in the bone.

What the scientists did not mention, perhaps forgot themselves, was that the woman on whom this analysis of Woman was based wasn't one. Her hands and head and hips and ribs were not born together. They were all bones of different women, wired together. The scientists threw the pieces into the air, and this is what came down. And there were no more tosses, mo more chances. Women were stuck with Her, even though she didn't really exist. It made me wonder, how much is pretending.

pg. 317 "My father chuckled, 'Good, very good. Why did the man beat his head against the wall?'"
It was an old joke in our house. 'Because it felt so good when he stopped.' I kept my tone flat."

( )
  kirstiecat | Mar 31, 2013 |
A layered knowing story of a family falling apart, a family already adrift from the French Riviera bourgeoisie they cling to, still living with the legacy of France's abortive colonial adventure in Algeria. The weight of the past is heavy and Messud teases it apart gently, without judgement. A great book. ( )
  aoife | Feb 18, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0156011654, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:46 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A novel about French colonists in Algeria and their difficult adjustment to France after Algerian independence. It is narrated by a girl whose grandfather buys a hotel on the Riviera and forgetting he is no longer in the colonies goes to jail for shooting at rowdy teenagers by a pool.… (more)

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