Book: The Last Girls
Author: Lee Smith
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2002
Reviewer: Shannon Rowlett Jones
Lee Smith’s latest novel The Last Girls tells the tale of five women--four living and one dead--who have come together for a reunion trip down the Mississippi River. The first trip occurred in 1965 when the girls, as they were known then, were college suitemates studying creative writing and taking inspiration from Mark Twain. The second trip is brought about by the death of Baby, whose last thoughts in the days before she died were of seeing and reconnecting with her old friends. While the collegiate journey took place on a raft, the second takes place on the Belle of Natchez, a luxury steam boat. The story abounds with eccentric characters, historic battlefield stopovers, and tacky plantation paraphernalia. We see the old and the new south connecting along the river, tourist traps, casinos, and Mark Twain alive, well, and narrating the journey. Amidst this, we learn how each of the women has changed and of the secrets they keep from one another.
The river becomes a fitting metaphor for their lives. They each have been tossed and turned a bit, and things have not quite turned out the way they envisioned them all those years ago. Each of them is in a period of drift and uncertainty. The point that another person’s motivation or true feelings can never be known by another is illustrated through an interweaving of past and present. We discover that the women never really knew each other from the beginning of their relationships.
The group is a mixed bag of personalities, and yet they are each plagued by self-doubt about many of the choices they made after the initial raft trip. Harriet, Baby’s best friend, can’t figure out how she ended up unmarried and childless. Anna is a famous romance novelist who writes formulaic novels instead of the great literature to which she once aspired. Catherine is a well-known sculptor with a lump in her breast and a drunk husband who is hilariously fixated on the women of the Weather Channel. Courtney is a Southern Living socialite obsessed with scrap booking and her overweight, muu-muu-wearing, florist lover. Then there is Baby, who was the quintessential Southern-Gothic-Tragic-Belle: brilliant, beautiful, and completely unstable.
The women are caught between the old Southern ways of their mothers and the new ways that began to emerge in their college years. It is perhaps these two images of what they feel they should have been that merge and create a deep sense of unhappiness in them. They all seem sadly disconnected and unwilling to try and relate to each other. They have each come to a point in life where it is time to make a decision and follow a new path, or re-dedicate themselves to the old one. By juxtaposing the frantic fun atmosphere on the Belle of Natchez with more serene moments, Smith gives each of the women moments to breathe and reconnect with what is around them.
Courtney turns and walks back up the aisle and out into the oak grove which strikes her now as yet another church, a big leafy cathedral. She feels dwarfed by the giant scale. She reaches for her camera, but stops. This is a picture she can’t take, because she’s in it.
Along the way there are unexpected and sometimes unwanted moments of clarity which are described so clearly they take on a life of their own. It is these moments in the novel that really save the characters from becoming clichéd southern martyrs, marching on and making everyone happy but themselves. We know they are capable of happiness and want them to achieve it.
Catherine’s whole life, even her life with Russell, seems distant to her right now, not nearly as real as the days when she used to wander the woods and fields with Wesley when they were kids. It’s all because of the river. If Catherine closes her eyes, she’s there yet and it’s morning, early morning, her sneakers are wet with dew. She smells the honeysuckle so strong as she climbs up the stile; she hears the pot-rack, pot-rack sounds of the guineas back there in the foggy woods.
A twist in the story allows the other elements to work: The
once suicidal Baby was the happy one. Her death was an accident. It astounds
the other girls that Baby may have been happy when they are not. Did she make
the choice to be happy or did she make the choice to end it all? Either way,
she made a choice and now they must do the same. They are forced to admit
that they knew nothing about her. The twisting and turning river journey they
began as girls continues. Their mistake was in thinking that it would turn
out the way they expected, or that at some point while alive they would reach