In National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti’s new novel, The Last Forever, a teenager tells the bittersweet, achingly honest and often funny story of finding hope in an ever-changing world.
Following her mother’s death, Tessa and her pot-smoking father take an impromptu road trip—for escape, for healing, for whatever it is they need. But her father doesn’t just take Tess to the Grand Canyon; he drags her all the way to a small coastal town in Oregon and abandons her with his mother, a woman Tess barely knows. (He promises to return . . . eventually.) And on top of all that, Tess brought her mom’s rare pixiebell plant with her. It’s her last connection to her mother, and it’s beginning to wilt.
As she struggles to save the pixiebell and cope with her mother’s death and her father’s disappearance, Tess forms a bond with her grandmother and meets Henry Lark, her first love. Needless to say, Tess’ trials and sadness do not stop with the loss of her mother—life doesn’t work that way. But she is able to get through these moments, bit by bit, with the love from friends and family—and the sanctuary of the library.
The Last Forever is a moving and surprising book, with a heroine that is at once fragile and resilient. Tess might have an edge to her, but she is never a cynic. She has hope; she falls in love. She finds new life after devastating loss.
The Last Forever has elements we’ve seen in your work before: multigenerational road trips, first love, heartache and loss. In what way does The Last Forever stand out to you?
I think the themes are larger. This isn’t really a boy-girl-love book, and if a reader comes to it looking for that, they’re likely to be disappointed. It is about love, yes, but in the greatest sense of the word—deep love, the lasting kind, between parents and children, lifelong friends, family, partners. It’s about our beginnings, endings and the whole big beautiful mess in between. Like most of my novels, it’s a gentle, “human condition” book, but this one touches on a more timeless subject—the way we continue on. And then there’s the vault. A wedge of steel, hidden in the farthest corner of the arctic, built to house millions of seeds so that we might begin again in the event of global catastrophe—definitely one of my most unusual locations.
I’m familiar with the Victorian language of flowers, but for The Last Forever, you create your own language, the language of seeds. Every chapter opens with a fact about a remarkable seed, which matches up with what’s going on in Tessa’s adventure. Not to mention, seeds become a powerful metaphor for the relationship between parent and child, among other things. Do you have a favorite seed? What does it mean to you?
I was fascinated by all of the seed research I did. Who knew that each seed had its own unique qualities, quirks, and history, much like we do? My favorite was the seed of the Fireweed, which is known for its ability to both survive in and transform the most desperate locations. This seed will choose locations destroyed by fire and oil spills and war, blanketing them in no time with new color and life. I love that. Now there’s resilience and triumph, for you.
Tessa narrates this story after the fact, giving us little previews of events to come, things she didn’t know when she was actually on this adventure. Even the opening sentence reveals a small peek of plot points much further down the road: “In those early months, when the beautiful and mysterious Henry Lark and I began to do all that reading . . .” But the reader never really meets this storytelling Tessa. Who do you picture as this older, slightly wiser Tessa?
I just picture Tessa as herself, maybe in college now, after a few years have passed. It can take some time after the large events of our lives to really gain perspective. After a while, you say, “Oh, so that’s what all that meant.” As a writer, I liked the thoughtful quality that the “looking back” brings the narrative; I imagine Tessa penning the story from Jenny’s sunny porch on Parrish Island, Vito sleeping in a spot of sun nearby.
Tessa’s foreshadowing elements provide the sense of foresight that few people (not just teens) have when we are mired in the darkest points of our life. The ability to look ahead comes with age and experience, and often requires a reminder from friends and family. What advice would you offer teenagers—or perhaps, your own teenage self—who can’t see so far ahead?
I would advise anyone struggling to hold on, because you never, ever know what a new day will bring. Teens won’t likely have seen that old classic movie, The African Queen, but there’s a scene in it I’ve thought of frequently during my own darkest times. Remember when the boat is stuck and stuck and stuck forever in that jungle swamp? Just before Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn are about to give up, the camera pans upward, and we—the audience—see what they can’t, that they are only a few feet away from freedom. They’ve just fallen asleep in exhaustion from their plight, but we can see the wide, open space that is waiting for them as soon as they wake up. Looking back on hard times, I realize just how close I was to change, even if I didn’t know it right then. Fate has plans for you. Believe it.
“Libraries have been an essential and sustaining fact of my life since I was a child. I saw the magic immediately: dinosaurs and planets and girl detectives; adventure and escape, all in a setting of order and safety.”
One of my favorite moments in the book is when Tessa finds the library right after her father ditches her. Books are “knowledge in the face of confusion.” What comfort has the library brought to your life?
The Last Forever is my little love note to libraries, librarians and book lovers—could you tell? Everyone who knows me knows how I feel about the library. Libraries have been an essential and sustaining fact of my life since I was a child. I saw the magic immediately: dinosaurs and planets and girl detectives; adventure and escape, all in a setting of order and safety. From then on, like Tessa and many other characters in this book, I was the library-goer who needed the library—for sanctuary and for a sigh of relief, and because all the answers were in that place. I ate lunch in there sometimes when I was a teen and needed a reprieve from being a teen. As a young mother, I trolled the aisles dripping babies and book bags as I tried to learn how to be a writer. And later, I hid in Self Help as I tried to understand—and leave—my abusive marriage.
That’s another thing: librarians keep your secrets. Between those walls and those covers there is all of life, the whole record of us poor old souls doing what we can to get through it, and librarians know this. Libraries and the books within them brought me to the life that was mine. It’s still my favorite cure for a bad day, and I’ve never lost the thrill that I can actually bring all those books home.
This book would be an obvious choice to a teenager (or anyone) who had recently lost a parent, but for those who are fortunate to not have experienced this loss, what do you hope they will take away from this book?
I hope that they’ll laugh a little, maybe cry a little, and find comfort in the idea that, in a world where everything is constantly changing, there are always people we can count on.
At the heart of The Last Forever (the title is a big giveaway) is the hope for forever in a world where death is inevitable. Do you have a “last forever,” something that gives you that kind of hope?
Well, this is a corny answer but an honest one. I believe that the real, deep and often flawed connections we have with all of our beloveds is a powerful, powerful thing. The thing. If anything can last forever, it’s love.