September 1999

What makes an American?

By Claire Messud
Review by
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"I am American now," Sagesse LaBasse declares at the opening of Claire Messud's second novel, The Last Life. Readers will be thankful that she doesn't tell her story American style. In contrast to a nation full of people who compete to tell their most shocking secrets in front of a studio audience, Sagesse delivers her narrative in a refreshingly quiet and understated voice.

Her story begins when she is a teenager spending long, lazy summers on the grounds of her grandfather's hotel by the sea in France. These chapters will effortlessly transport you to the Mediterranean coast, where the slow, sunny ease is deceptive. Disturbing events will raise difficult questions about culture, colonialism, family, selfishness, and sacrifice. Yet despite the weight and complexity of these issues, Sagesse is unflinching in her analysis of the people around her. Most impressive, she examines her own actions at least as seriously as she does those of her friends, parents, and grandparents. Only Sagesse's brother gets an uncritical treatment from her. Etienne Parfait was deprived of oxygen at birth, damaging his brain. He is silent, wheelchair-bound. At times Etienne seems joyful and at others troubled or distraught. He serves as a mirror for Sagesse and a vessel for her family's emotions. Tenderly, without caricaturing him, Messud uses Etienne as a foil for her characters, to bring out their subtler traits.

"I am American now," Sagesse repeats like a mantra. Her insistence highlights her uncertainty. Her mother is an American who moved to France for love, and Sagesse's paternal ancestors emigrated from France to Algeria and returned to France generations later. Sagesse will follow in her parents' footsteps by leaving her home country. Messud characterizes America, without judging it, as a place where one can reinvent her history as she pleases, or erase it all together; it is all future and no past.

Robin Taylor is a web designer and technical writer for an IT magazine.

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The Last Life

The Last Life

By Claire Messud
Harcourt Brace
ISBN 9780151004713

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