Cover image for The last life
The last life
Messud, Claire, 1966-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt Brace, [1999]

Physical Description:
352 pages ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1130 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Library

On Order



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.

Author Notes

Claire Messud was born in Greenwich, Connecticut. She grew up in the United States, Australia, and Canada. She returned to the states when she was a teenager. She did undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale University and Cambridge University.

Messud's debut novel, "When The World Was Steady" (1995), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. "The Emperor's Children" was a New York Times Bestseller and was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Her most recent novel, "The Burning Girl" was published in 2017 by W. W. Norton.

She has taught creative writing at Amherst College, Kenyon College, University of Maryland, Yale University, in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers in North Carolina, in the Graduate Writing program at The Johns Hopkins University, and at Harvard University. Messud also taught at the Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She is on the editorial board of the literary magazine The Common, based at Amherst College.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has recognized Messud's talent with both an Addison Metcalf Award and a Strauss Living Award. She is s a recipient of Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A young French girl comes of age amid a series of excruciatingly painful family crises. When her grandfather, a prominent hotelier, temporarily loses both his temper and his sanity, firing his rifle at a group of moderately annoying and inconsiderate teenagers, 15-year-old Sagesse LaBasse attempts to make sense of all the circumstances and events that preceded her grandfather's breakdown, her father's suicide, and the disintegration of her predictable existence. Stretching back generations, she unravels her family's complex history and revisits her American and colonial Algerian roots. The deeper she delves, the more she realizes the inescapable fact that the past defines the present, and that the stones she uncovers are often more substantial than her own fragile reality. A spellbinding and perceptive glimpse into a tortured adolescent soul from a tremendously gifted and empathetic writer. Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

Loss of innocenceÄfor a young girl, her family and her nationÄis the theme of Messud's resonant second novel. Plangent with the memories of a pivotal two-year period in the life of teenage narrator Sagesse LaBasse, the novel flashes back to three generations of the LaBasse family, pieds noirs who fled Algeria during the 1960s. Domineering patriarch Jacques, Sagesse's grandfather, establishes the Hotel Bellevue on France's Mediterranean coast and proclaims the family myth of invincibility. But the LaBasses suffer from the same vain and empty valuesÄoverweening pride and social snobberyÄthat led to the French debacle in Algeria. To Sagesse's piously Catholic parents, Alex and Carol, their severely handicapped son, Etienne, is the embodiment of the doctrine of Original Sin, and Carol cares for him at home because LaBasse women must sacrifice themselves for the good of the family. Etienne is also a blow to his parents' marriage, already foundering because of Alex's womanizing and their different cultural backgrounds: Carol is American, and has never been accepted by her stern in-laws. After intolerant, irascible grandpŠre shoots at rowdy teenagers on the hotel property, he is sentenced to prison, the LaBasses become social outcasts and Sagesse's friends abandon her. Alex briefly comes into his own and runs the hotel, but Jacques's release accelerates Alex's and the family's destruction. Messud (When the World Was Steady) sustains an elegiac tone in describing a seemingly ordered world that in reality is precarious; the LaBasses erect futile defenses against tragedies they are unable to prevent. In striking scenes, Messud recreates the last days of French rule in Algeria and the anomie of the ex-colonials, exiles from the land they love and strangers in their mother country. Sometimes these frequent flashbacks are awkward and not well integrated into the narrative. Yet some scenesÄSagesse acting out her adolescent insecurity during a summer with her relatives in New England, for exampleÄare small gems. Questions of morality and mortality, of choice or fate or historical destiny, permeate the chronicle, adding coherence to a moving and insightful story. Agent, Georges Borchardt. Author tour. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

After her acclaimed When the World Was Steady, Messud weighs in with a novel narrated by teenager Sagesse LaBasse, who recounts her family's sojourn from colonial Algeria to America. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One I am American now, but this wasn't always so.     I've been here a long time--six years at Columbia alone, and what seems an age before that--and have built a fine simulacrum of real life. But in truth, until now I've lived, largely, inside. These small rooms on New York City's Upper West Side are my haven: an ill-lit huddle of books and objects, a vague scent that is home. I've been waiting, although I could not, until he appeared, have given earthly shape to what I waited for. "By pining, we are already there; we have already cast our hope, like an anchor, on that coast. I sing of somewhere else, not of here: for I sing with my heart, not my flesh."     I'm not American by default. It's a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn't known this? It is the same, for the Korean saleswoman or the Bangladeshi businessman or the Nigerian student, for the Iowan nurse and the Montanan secretary, as it is for me: Americanness draws a veil, it lends a carapace to the lives we hold within.     Wherever we have come from, there ceased to be room, or words, or air; only here is breathing possible. The guilt does not evaporate: I live--how can I not?--with my burden of Original Sin. But in America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new. And for a long time, seeming sufficed.     Now I find myself wanting to translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France's southern coast; with the fragrances and echoes of my grandfather's Bellevue Hotel, perched above the vast Mediterranean in its shifting palette of greens and blues and greys; and, as a starting place, with the high season of 1989. Chapter Two The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me. In this way every story is made up, its shape imposed: the beginning was not really then, any more than was the day of my brother's birth, or, indeed, of mine. Nor is it strictly true that my grandfather shot at me : I was not, by chance, in the line of fire; he did not know that I was there. But it was an event, the first in my memory, after which nothing was the same again.     Those summer evenings were all alike. As Marie-José used to say, we had to make the time pass. Of its own accord, it didn't, or wouldn't: the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glaucous dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled. Every night the white, illuminated bulk of the island ferry ploughed its furrow across the water and receded to the horizon, the only marker of another day's passage.     Still almost children, we scorned the games of tag and cops and robbers that the younger kids delighted in, spiralling their pursuits outwards from the round benches by the parking lot to the furthest foliated corners of the grounds. Instead we idled, and smoked, and talked, and were so bored we made a virtue of being bored. And we flirted--although most of us had known each other for years, and had spent each summer swimming and playing together, for so long that we knew each other's skin and laughter and illusions like our own, we flirted. It made the time pass.     I can't recall now whose idea it was first, to swim at night. We spent our days in the water, in the murky, boat-bobbed brine of the bay, or in the electric indigo of the swimming pool, its surface skimmed with oily iridescence. We lived in our bathing suits, tiny triangles of color, and worked (it was the closest that we came to work) on bronzing our skin evenly, deeply, so it held its tinge even through the winter months. We filed from beach to pool to beach again, up and down the tortuous paths, past the aloes in which, in earlier years, we had carved our initials, careful scars in the prickled, rubbery flesh. Why we felt the need to swim again, I do not know: perhaps because our water games were still those we had always played, a sphere into which self-consciousness had not yet intruded. We tussled in pairs on the pool's rim, struggling to push each other in, jumped from the overhanging balustrade into the shallows (although this maneuver had been strictly forbidden since a guest had cracked his skull attempting it), flaunted our elegant leaps from the diving board and, squealing, chased each other the length of the pool, the prize a firm shove on the top of the head and a spluttering sinkage.     Our games echoed in the trees. The higher our pitch the more we felt we enjoyed ourselves. In the daytime, the adult guests lounged in disgust by the water's edge, cursing our explosions and the rain of chlorinated droplets that they scattered; or else, stoic and frowning, they forged a measured breaststroke through our midst, their wake immediately swallowed by our flapping arms and legs. But at night the pool, lit from below, wavered, empty, avoided by the grown-ups who wandered through the distant hotel bar or dawdled, debating, over endless suppers, their voices rising and falling in the cicada-chorused air. The nearest thing to swimmers were the swooping bats that shot along the waterline in search of insects, attracted by the light.     And so, around ten o'clock one evening in July, or possibly even later, Thierry--the son of the accountant, a boy who never seemed to grow and whose voice obstinately refused to change, who compensated for his size with awkward arrogance and tedious pranks--suggested that we chase away the bats and reclaim the shimmering depths for ourselves. Familiar in the sunlight, the pool in the dark was an adventure, all shadows around it altered. We had no towels and, beneath our clothes, no suits, so we stripped naked, our curves and crevices hidden by the night, and plunged in.     We were a group of eight or nine, the children for whom the hotel was home and those for whom it was each summer the equivalent. Our gropings and sinkings and splashings were more exciting for our nakedness, our screams correspondingly more shrill. We didn't think of the adults: why would we? We didn't even think of time. The night swim was a delicious discovery, even though our heads and arms, when protruding to the air, were cold, and our bodies riddled with goose bumps. Ten minutes, maybe twenty. We weren't long in the water, and it is still difficult to believe we were so very loud, when my grandfather emerged onto his balcony, a dark form against the living room lights, with the bulge of the plane tree like a paleolithic monster yapping at his feet.     He declaimed, his voice hoarse and furious. People were trying to think, to sleep. This was a place of rest, and the hour unconscionable ... In short, we had no right to swim. We dangled, treading water, cowed into silence for a moment until someone--Thierry, no doubt--began to hiss across to me, half-laughing, inaudible to my grandfather, about how the old prick should be silenced.     "Tell him you're here," he whispered. "Just tell him you're here and that'll shut him up. Go on. Or else he'll blabber on all night. Go on!"     Others--Marie-José and Thibaud and Cécile and the rest--took up his exhortation: "Go on, Sagesse, go on." Their voices lapped like waves that my grandfather, slightly deaf and still ranting, could not distinguish.     "Grand-père," I shouted, finally, my voice high as a bell. "It's us. It's me. We're sorry. We didn't mean to disturb you."     "Get out right now," he yelled back. "Get out, get dressed and go home. It's the middle of the night." Everyone sniggered at this: we believed that people who went to bed, who got up in the morning and went to work, were some kind of a joke. "Does your father know you're here?"    "Yes, Grand-père, he knows."     My grandfather snorted, disgusted, a theatrical snort. "Go home, all of you," he said, and turned, fading back into the light, regaining his features and the high, greyed dome of his forehead.     We scrambled from the pool, a dripping huddle, muttering.     "Your grandfather, man," said Thierry, jumping up and down with his hands clasped over the shadow of his genitals. "He's something else."     "It's not Sagesse's fault," said Marie-José, putting a damp arm around me. "But he is, you know, a jerk."     "He's a bastard to work for, my father says," said a skinny girl called Francine, her teeth chattering. Her father was the head groundsman.     "My father says the same," I said. Everyone laughed, and just then a bat nose-dived and almost clipped the tops of our heads. We screamed in unison, and tittered guiltily at our screaming.     "Be careful," said Thibaud, one of the summer residents, the son of nouveaux riches from Paris and the boy I had my eye on. "Or he'll come back out." He growled. "Rottweiler."     We dissolved again.

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