When I find an author I like, I tend to go on and read all (or at least most) of what they’ve published. I started this in high school with Herman Wouk, then in college with Chaim Potok and have kept up the habit with several others over the years. In this era of Reading Challenges there are some aimed at doing this and others at clearing your To Be Read list/pile. Lee Smith’s The Last Girls is one of those books. I read her novel Oral History when it came out then lost track of her. Recently I read (and reviewed here) her memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life and decided she’d be one of the author’s whose backlist (prior books) I’d tackle gradually. (I posted about the other author’s I’d read in this Top 5 Wednesday post).
”…she has given her body nearly away already, to her children and her husbands, and now she wants to hold on to what she can.”
In 1965 a group of girls (including the author in her real life) went down the Mississippi by raft. All were students at a Southern women’s college. In the book they all reunite after one dies and go on a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi to remember their lost friend.
I’m one of those readers who loves the backstories of the characters. I like to know all about them. I loved learning about each of their childhoods, what they were like in college, where they were today. The title comes from the old news story about the trip–they were referred to as “girls” and not women. One of them remarks that that could not happen today. Hence they are the “last” girls to do such a trip.
The plot may have been a standard reunion story (a plot I usually really enjoy, by the way), but the characters each had unexpected, if not really “secret-secret” aspects of their life and of their inner “person.” I found myself really looking forward to the drive to and from work (an hour and 15 minutes each way) so I could listen to more of their stories.
I related best to Anna who, in college, planned to write serious fiction but settled for making great money writing formula romances. And I loved Pete–the “River Lore-ian” [I listened to the audio. I don’t think it was laureate. I think he was about River Lore, hence Lore-ian.] I enjoyed that entire story line. And, ugh! Bridgette and Leonard–who hasn’t been trapped with people like them?
An aside: I loved learning that “Mary Scott College” was, in real life, Virginia’s Hollis College where a friend’s mother, who became a poet, went. That was a fun “extra” connection.
In spite of all the great backstory, I didn’t come away feeling I knew the characters.
I couldn’t stand Baby. There, I’ve said it! She was…well…a baby! I realize she was mentally ill and in 1962–1965 there were no medications that helped. That part was very sad–and I completely sympathized with even a fictional person suffering in that era. But I still couldn’t stand her little, whiney, manipulative, entitled self! I could see dear Jeff adoring her–the “Soldier boy” protecting a “baby” and all. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t see why Harriet stayed friends with her! I’d have been at the college housing office in a week begging to move ANYWHERE to avoid her! Even marrying an older man didn’t make her more endearing–and I usually love any story of that sort.
I also kind of hoped Courtney would follow dear Baby’s ashes off the side of the ole Showboat Paddle Wheeler. Another lady who lunches who wasn’t satisfied with all she had. Catherine wasn’t annoying but her husband sure was. Nice, but annoying.
Picky, picky stuff: While panty hose had technically come out in 1962 they were far from common yet and, there was no diet Coke in ’65. Minor stuff–very, very minor stuff.
That I didn’t like the main character was personal preference. The writing is wonderful! If you like reunion stories as much as I do, you will still enjoy this one, in spite of my dislikes.
I look forward to another Lee Smith novel before too long. I am going to read them all still., in my own sweet time. As an author, Lee Smith inspires me.
Here’s a link to the author’s story of her own raft trip.
The Last Girls by Lee Smith
Is it me, or are those bathing suits more suited to the 1940’s than to the Annettte and Frankie years?