"The Last Life," by Claire Messud. Harcourt Brace & Company. 368 pages. $24.
"The Last Life" is delicately ambitious. It occasionally touches the heights to which it aspires. Its chief problem is also an asset: This second novel by Claire Messud ("When the World Was Steady") is populated by secondary characters who are more interesting than its protagonist.
The narrator, as a young adult, looks back in time to 1989 to try to explain why her family shattered her sense of identity rather than strengthening it.
Teen-ager Sagesse LaBasse lives in a seemingly enchanted world that revolves around her grandfather's hotel on the French Mediterranean coast. Her idyllic summers are only slightly ruffled by her crusty grandfather's domineering ways, but there are other, sadder strains on her life.
Her mentally retarded and handicapped brother is "little more than a vegetable, by the reckoning of the world," and his birth marked, for her parents, "the clanging of their prison door." Her father, who works at the hotel, comes from a French Algerian background and is haunted by his colonial past, while her mother is an American who never felt comfortable in her French life.
What shatters this already cracked foundation is the moment when her grandfather loses his temper and shoots at Sagesse's friends, who are having a noisy nocturnal swim in the hotel pool. This moment of fury precipitates the collapse of the family, as Sagesse's parents face grim truths about each other and her grandfather faces a trial for his crime.
Yet one flaw in the story is that, for Sagesse, not all that much seems to be at stake -- at least for a while. She suffers the mild pangs of parting with her first love, is sent to spend some time with her American cousins and faces the rejection of her old friends.
The pain in the story that resonates most strongly is that of her father. The flashback account of his last days in Algeria, when the French were being forced to leave, is vivid and touching. His charm conceals a weakness of character that manifests itself in tragic consequences. But the detached narration fails to convey the power of his legacy.
At times, Messud's writing is lovely. At others, it's confoundingly circular, as when she discusses the role of fate: "We move the pieces when movement is possible, because possibility and necessity, on some plane, are one; because what is fated and what will be are inescapably the same, and the illusion our only choice, choice our illusion."
It's kind of fun to chew on that one, but not so much to wade through her occasionally Joycean sentences. I counted one with 174 words.
"The Last Life" kindles hope for more and better writing from Messud. I felt virtuous reading it, if not filled with pleasure. Still, not all readers are going to feel virtuous enough to attempt it.
Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Newsweek, Premiere, the Maryland Poetry Review and elsewhere.
Pub Date: 09/26/99