"Last Things"

In a heartbreaking first novel, an 8-year-old watches her mother lose her mental bearings.

Published April 21, 1999 6:06PM (EDT)

It's obvious at once that Jenny Offill's debut novel, "Last Things," owes something to Mona Simpson's 1986 debut novel, "Anywhere but Here." Offill's is the more delicate and peculiar book, but the similarities -- put-upon daughter, wacky, unconventional mother -- are unmistakable. Both Simpson and Offill like pouring ice water on sentiment and skewering standard notions of childhood innocence. More than that, they seek to show -- and succeed in showing -- a tough world through a tough little girl's eyes. Grace, the 7-going-on-8-year-old in "Last Things," is several years younger than Ann in "Anywhere but Here," and so Offill's challenge is that much greater: not just to get the story told convincingly but to re-create the matter-of-factness with which children accept almost everything, because they don't have enough experience to call on for comparison. A situation we know is out of control can look like an adventure to them.

Grace Davitt lives in wide-eyed thrall to her nutty mother, Anna. Jonathan Davitt, Grace's father, who teaches chemistry at a local academy, is as exasperated by his wife as he is enchanted by her -- and Anna is a born enchantress. (The teenage science nerd who baby-sits for Grace -- "He had a dream ... that one day entire cities might be illuminated by mold" -- is also desperately in love with her.) Unlike her stiffly rationalist husband (who becomes so outraged when Grace's teacher tells her she's named after "God's greatest gift of all" that he sends his child back to class packing a copy of "Know Your Constitution!"), Anna loves recounting the monster myths that light up the little girl's imagination. Grace's favorite book is "The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained," which lists "all the monsters of the world alphabetically," and Anna sometimes calls Grace her "little monster" -- not altogether inappropriately.

Partly because her daughter is stealing and lying and generally developing into a misfit at her school, Anna decides, over Jonathan's objections, to educate her at home instead. And she'd make an ideal teacher if she were sane. She paints up a big "cosmic calendar" -- "Jan. 1: Big Bang ... May 1: Origin of the Milky Way Galaxy ... Dec. 16: First worms," and so forth: "It's the history of the world," she explains to her husband. "I thought I would teach it to Grace in real time." Offill organizes much of the book around this calendar, using the descriptions of these cosmic events to introduce chapters and sections of chapters; it's a clever device that's also showy and a little bit precious.

The author does a lovely job of re-creating the nonjudgmental perspective of a child, but she isn't as good on adulthood -- though, to be fair, she doesn't really even enter the territory. The grown-up Grace narrates, in the first person, but she doesn't give us a single hint of how the momentously sad events of her childhood have affected her. As a narrator, she is, in fact, affectless, and I couldn't tell whether the adult Grace was withholding every iota of judgment -- which is a novelist's stratagem, not a daughter's -- or had grown up to be a zombie, since there is already something zombielike in the impersonal sadism of Grace the child. (At one point she locks the little blind girl down the street inside a doghouse and walks away.) But a zombie could never tell Grace's story with the art that Jenny Offill brings to it. She is a young novelist drawn in two directions, toward artifice and toward naturalism. She wants to make her story real enough to break hearts, but so far, at least, she doesn't have the naturalist's scruples about concealing her art.

By Craig Seligman

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

MORE FROM Craig Seligman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------