The last girls of summer

If you’re a woman of a certain age, you may have noticed already the little ways you’ve grown to be like your mother. Of the many alarming prospects raised by Lee Smith’s new novel, The Last Girls (published this September by Algonquin Books), not the least is that you may just become your mother-in-law, as well.

This discomfiting realization is only one of the woes that plague the five main characters of this eminently readable, if sometimes overcrowded, novel. By pages’ end, their catalogue of misadventure includes: abandonment, miscarriage, dead-end jobs, three bad marriages, two good marriages cut short by a partner’s death, Alzheimer’s disease, dead siblings, estranged siblings, sexual rejection, adultery, suicide, depression, alcoholism, a hysterectomy, breast cancer, and not a few moments of gazing at the family circle — the husband, the grown children, the lovely grandchildren — only to question who all these people are and wonder why they insist on always being around.

Which is all by way of noting that The Last Girls is a novel about women’s lives. That these adventures are, in essence, tragic but often read funny helps us observe that the women in question are Southern. In 1966, 30 students at an all-women’s college in Virginia are inspired by Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to build a raft and travel down the Mississippi River. The journey takes them from Paducah, Kentucky, to New Orleans. Like many a literary pilgrimage, the trip doesn’t go off as expected. It’s less a romantic odyssey of self-discovery than a crowded circus of hoopla, due perhaps to the fact that, unlike poor Huck and Jim, these travelers are cute and willing to be photographed with their scantily clad rears prominent in the viewfinder.

At each new town, crowds wait on the dock. Mayors bestow keys to their cities. And newspapers print scads of stories.

As she leafs through her clippings of the trip, a character named Harriet notices a caption which reads “A Raft of Girls.” She muses, “If [we] made the same trip today, [we] would not be referred to as ‘girls’ in any of these articles.”

The last generation of women to come of age in a pre-feminist world, here are the Last Girls. Thirty years later, four of the women reunite to travel down the Mississippi again, this time aboard a tacky paddleboat cruise replete with a singing captain and crew personnel costumed as Mark Twain. Yet the occasion is somber. One of their close friends, Baby, has died. Her widower has requested that the women take this second voyage and sprinkle Baby’s ashes at the journey’s end. As these four friends reconnect after the passage of decades, their missing friend maintains a ghostly but insistent presence on the trip; she’s the memory that won’t stay in Cargo. Sitting together around a table in the paddleboat’s dining room, wondering (with little irony) why everyone around them looks so old, the four are the Last Girls once again: the ones who remain standing.

Lee Smith also went down the Mississippi by raft while attending an all-women’s college in Virginia. And while writing The Last Girls, she travelled the river again aboard a paddleboat cruise. But in a phone interview from her home in Hillsborough, N.C., Smith warns against reading the novel as straight autobiography. This reviewer was disappointed to learn, for example, that, unlike her character Courtney, Smith doesn’t have a 300-pound lover who lunches in a pink kimono. “I wish!” says Smith.

Instead of lifting any life story in its entirety, Smith disperses little bits of herself into each character she writes. “Anne Tyler once said that she writes because she wants to have more than one life,” Smith relates. “And I think that’s true, and a lot of what we do with our characters is to put in unspoken parts of ourselves that may not be visible to people who know us.” So while Courtney’s pink kimono-clad lover is a wholesale creation, her love of setting a handsome table comes straight from Smith — who seems, to me, to have gotten a poor exchange of fact for fiction there. Meanwhile, the creation of another character, Anna, a hugely popular writer of Harlequin-style romances, revealed to Smith a heretofore-unknown talent: “It turns out I just love to write these romances. I can just knock ’em off.”

In the interim between her river journeys, Smith has, herself, become a popular writer, though of Appalachian-themed novels, not romances. Her 13 previous books — among them the novels Black Mountain Breakdown, Oral History, Fair and Tender Ladies and three outstanding collections of short stories — have earned her a flotilla of fans. Counted among Smith’s numerous awards are two O. Henrys as well as the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Not bad for a writer lady who’s made a career of spinning stories about these-here mountains.

Smith describes her raft trip in college as “a great adventure.” Measuring 40 by 16 feet, the craft was built in a Paducah lumberyard. “It was like a floating porch on top of oildrums and had a sort of porch rail around it … so you could pull a tarp across the top.”

Yet if the trip was such an adventure, why did Smith wait 30 years to write about it?

“It was a pretty extraordinary trip, but it was just that,” she says, meaning the trip gave her a plot, but not the resonance needed for great fiction. The ultimate meaning of the journey could only be revealed by time, as Smith felt “the same impulse that makes a lot of people go to their 30th college reunion. … It’s the mid-life impulse of taking stock, I guess.”

Suddenly, the raft trip seemed the perfect metaphor for the lives of the women Smith wanted to chronicle. The traditional boy’s adventure book, she observes, doesn’t fit the experience of women, who are less hung-up on destination and more attuned to the journey itself. “We’re not going to go and get the golden fleece and bring it back. It’s not search and conquer,” she says. In fact, it’s not even “beginning, middle and end.”

Instead, it’s the flow and rhythm between past and present that Smith captures in The Last Girls, as the narrative washes back and forth between the women’s college days and their present circumstance like the lapping of waves against a boat. The contrast between the two time settings is particularly piquant because of the abrupt rupture between what the girls were raised to expect and the world they found after college. Smith’s generation was the last, the author says, to “go through school secretly thinking that we’d probably marry somebody and they’d take care of us.” And, of course, coming out of school in the mid ’60s, “everything changed immediately after that.”

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