Article Tools

Teen Struggles with her Mixed Cultural Heritage


Jan Garden Castro, St. Louis Post--Dispatch, January 17, 1999
Claire Messud's novel "The Last Life" convincingly portrays a girl's coming of age adventures in the south of France. It also personalizes larger questions about growing up with a mixed cultural heritage and shows the psychological damage of ethnic wars such as Franco-Algerian War.

Sagesse LaBasse, whose given and family names roughly translate as "wisdom" and "the low one," introduces herself as an American by choice. She then plunges into her family's saga in France, starting with her grandfather's wild idea to shoot at teens including herself who were noisily using his hotel pool for evening entertainment. She tells the story of her grandfather's French parents, who migrated to Algeria with few belongings, becoming "pieds-noirs," a term referring to French colonialists in Algerians, whose violent motto was "the suitcase or the coffin." Back in France, the "pieds-noirs" were "France's error made flesh."

Grandfather LaBasse's upbringing in Algeria made it hard for him to sympathize with the French who supported Algerian independence. Sagesse grapples with his feelings of displacement his resulting intolerance, and his struggle to build a new life for himself and his family.

Sagesse also struggles to understand her parents. Her father, the last member of the family to leave Algeria has frustrated ambitions at the second-in-command at the seaside hotel built by Grandfather LaBasse. Her mother, born in America, has never satisfied the expectations of her American mother, her husband's Algerian parents or the xenophobic residents of the small French town. Sagesse's parents both undergo dramatic personality changes in the course of the novel.

Sagesse's mixed sexual feelings toward her first boyfriend, Thibaud, are complicated by the fact that they are embracing in a hiding place near the pool when her grandfather shoots at the swimmers.

After the shooting incident the LaBasse family has been disgraced. Sagesse's boyfriend returns to Paris. She spends the summer with her American cousins; one teaches her questionable behavior including smoking marijuana. Back home, Sagesse deals with making new friends and feeling like a social outcast.

The core of the novel is a teen's questioning of the world around her yet this teen also looks back at herself through an adult's eyes. As she considers the members on her American, French and especially, her Algerian family tree, she concludes, "There would not be words for what links us and separate us a one and the same time."

"The Last Life" reads like an autobiographical novel. This farce features two aging British sisters one dowdy and living in England, the other more adventurous and living in Australia and Bali. This fast-paced, hilarious book exposes the prejudices and dilemmas of the British middle class; it was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The author, born in the United States in 1966, was educated at Yael and Cambridge.

Messud has a great sense of humor, an active love of language, and a keen ear for varied dialects. Her male characters are quite as fully developed as her females but add variety to the thought-provoking dialogues. The author's greatest strength is creating colorful, larger-than-life characters who crave wisdom that is beyond their grasp. As a bonus, the reader learns a few things that the characters miss

Jan Garden Castro is an art historian and contributing writer for Sculpture Magazine .