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4.5 out of 5 stars15
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 11 October 2002
This book was the subject of my local book group - and I am so glad, because the plot synopsis and reviews on the back would never have inspired me to read it. Clare Messud draws you in completely and inescapably to the life of the LaBasse family - and slowly and descriptively tells of the life of a fractured, destructive and disfunctional family unit.
I am sure there are many themes within the book, and everyone looks for their own meaning, but for me the book was all about how we are all trapped into our families - by relationships, circumstances, politics, economics. What really stood out for me though was how I never for one minute forgot who was telling the story, without feeling overwhelmed with pity or sympathy for Sagesse. I felt I ended up judging and viewing her on how she retold the story - not on what she said about herself. Sagesse makes the point herself in the books when she points out that within families when people tell stories very often what is left out is just as important as what is said.
Absolutely beautiful!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 19 October 2003
'The Last Life' is told from the viewpoint of 15-year-old Sagesse, a cynical character whose family struggles to find its place in the world -- they are repatriated French Algerians, who try too hard to given themselves an identity.
Claire Messud writes beautifully about displacement and the need to belong somewhere in society -- she knows what it's like to be someone unwanted, and she succeeds wonderfully at capturing the essence of the rising madness that one can suffer when the demons of the past are constantly knocking on the door. Claire sends us on a fascinating and colorful voyage to war-torn Algeria, the South of France and New England. There are many passages that read like postcards, and others that are movingly disturbing.
If you like beautiful prose with a strong and true protagonist's voice, then 'The Last Life' should be on your must-read list. It is a book that will stir you for a long time after you've finished reading it. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 11 December 2000
I have no hesitation is saying that this book is among the most impressive I've read in a long time. After a slow beginning, the novel becomes thoroughly engaging, not just in the remenisces of the likeable, intelligent narrator Sagesse, but also in the presentation of some excellent set-pieces, notably that of Sagesses's father trying to flee from Algeria with the coffin of his recently-deceased grandmother. There's a great deal to recommend in this novel. The characterisation is insightful, the writing very well measured, the tone genuinely philosophical. It has a lot to say about France and Algeria, and about America and Europe too - so that one feels that Claire Messud could write interestingly on any person or subject. She seems an excellent writer with an impressively original view of life, and I look forward to future work from her.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 13 August 2002
I won't comment on the writer's perfect prose but rather on how she perfectly managed to write about feelings which are so characteristic to French Algerians. Their wistfulness, their exuberant but aloof manners, the sentiment that they have not yet completed their journey from Algeria to France and somehow got lost in between - probably into the depths of their beloved Mediterranean sea. This is a story of a shipwreck and its stranded victims, people who were sent away from Algeria and proved incapable to integrate in the new haven provided by their motherland. In this way, this book is a not only a feat of storytelling but a profound description of a collective malaise. Anyone who - as an individual or a member of a minority - has experienced estrangement could read and learn from the Sagesse's experience.
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This is the story of a family living in a small town on the French Riviera, with its mixed population of Frenchmen (local as well as pieds noirs), Arabs (local as well as harkis) and Africans, and in the 1990s there is quite some tension between them.

The narrator is Sagesse LaBasse who, ten years later, recalls the time when she was aged between 14 and 16. Every now and again we hear her older voice - her fuller understanding of the traumatic Algerian background which had made her grandparents and then her father leave beautiful Algiers for France in the early 1960s. That older voice also refers to those Algerian philosophers, the Catholic St Augustine and the existentialist Camus.

The older voice also moves backward and forward in time, so, in disconnected fragments, we get the family story all the way back to 1865 - a hundred years before the birth of Sagesse - when her great-great-grandfather arrived in Algeria from Brittany. The significance of some of these fragments - about the grandfather’s great-aunt Christine or about his “lost” sister Estelle, for example - eludes me. But for the most part we read the story as the teenage Sagesse experienced it.

She has an Algerian-born father Alexandre, an American-born mother Carol (both of whom had for a long time found themselves dépaysés in France) and a physically and mentally handicapped brother Étienne (a significant presence throughout the book). Her paternal grandparents, Jacques and Monique, own a hotel.

The dynamics in that family are very well described: the love/distaste they have for Étienne; the unhappy marriage between Alexandre and Carol; Sagesse’s surly teenage rebellion against her father and the intensity of her adolescent feelings of loneliness, boredom and despair; the resentment of Jacques’ authoritarianism felt by his son and daughter-in-law, while Monique has made the submissive Carol conform to what she considers French - but are actually outdated French-Algerian - customs. None of them, for different reasons, ever feel fully at home in France

Jacques is an irascible nationalist; though his sentiments ring true, his long speeches do not. There will be major consequences when one day he shoots in rage at young people noisily cavorting in a pool below his window.

There are tensions in the family before the grandfather’s trial - they become the subject of gossip in the community; Sagesse loses her friends. She is packed off to Boston, to stay with Eleanor, a maternal aunt, and her family for three weeks. It is not a success: her teenage cousins are into drink and drugs; and so are the new Arab friends she makes when she returns home. But they too (except for one of them) fall away when they find that her father was a pied noir.

There is a dreadful event which I must not give away. We had been told right at the beginning of the novel that Sagesse is an American by the time she tells the story; and it is after that dreadful event that she readily agreed to the suggestion that it would be good for her to go to America. She adapted, but of course she does not feel fully at home there either.

It is an unhappy book.

For my taste, some of the incidents are described at too great a length, and the sumptuous style at the beginning is not kept up - indeed, some of the later passages in the book, when the older Sagesse reflects, for example, on free choice and inevitability, do not make for easy reading. The author is American, (her mother Canadian, her father a French Algerian) and I find it somewhat off-putting that the dialogue of the French teenagers in this novel often sounds so American. But she has a wonderful gift of description.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 13 April 2001
I was led to read this novel by an extract I read in "Granta" magazine. I am glad to say I was not disappointed in my decision to actually read this novel. Reading this novel is quite a tireless experience really, since this is a book you can stop reading at any point and then return to it without in any way losing the atmosphere you were immersed in during your last reading of it. This is made possible by the quality of the writing as well as the brevity of most chapters. This is not an exciting book in the sense of providing you with an endless series of thrills so as to sustain an illusion of suspense. Instead, you enter the mind and body of an adolescent girl whose life is affected both by the history of her family as well as the developments taking place still within her family. In a sense this is a story of a family related to the reader in an absorbing way by someone who cannot truly be impartial about the story since she too forms a part of the story. Yet somehow she manages to maintain the distance necessary to allow her to tell this story without getting lost within the whirlwind of her own emotions.
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on 30 March 2015
Claire Massud has an interesting style of writing. Her vocabulary is broad and it was useful to have a dictionary to hand for some of her more obscure words! It was different to read an adult book from the view of a teenager and gave a new slant to some of the events. All characters were realistically portrayed and for me evoked varying likes and dislikes. Some were weak and others strong which can draw the reader into greater involvement with them.
The idea at the end of including several different possibilities of events felt as if the author was trying to extend the book when there were good points earlier that could have provided a more suitabler end. To quote " The imaginary is our sustenance, but the real is where we live, a reality of fragments. For me, the majority of the tale was in the 'real' but the different possibilities near the end the imaginary.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2000
I don't know for certain but this novel seems like it might be a great one. It has such a large, patient feel to it, it moves slowly at your own pace, and is very very truthful about families and about growing up. I picked it up in a shop -- attracted by the cover, actually -- and fell straight into it. I can't get it out of my mind.
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on 15 April 2014
I am a huge admirer of The Woman Upstairs but felt that this novel lacked its qualities. The first person narrator just wasn't convincing and there was no sense of place. I didn't feel that I was in Provence or Algeria at all. Worst, it moves painfully slowly, its sluggish pace not at all helped by the movements back and forth in time.
I am really disappointed because I love the way Messud writes and the book's theme of displacement fascinates me. But it simply didn't engage me. Actually I gave up after 100 pages because reading it became a chore, but I wouldn't go below three stars for such an outstanding writer. In this instance, her intelligence and empathy weren't sufficient to carry me forward.
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on 29 September 1999
It's difficult to place this novel: is it American, English, or French? It reads like a mixture of all of them. Anyway, whatever it is, I loved it. Sometimes, Messood is too literary for my taste, the sentences meander a bit. But the meat of the book is brilliant. She's one of the few truly ADULT novelists around today, I think.
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