#SundaySentence, again from Claire Messud’s The Last Life

“Was it that tense that locked him, perhaps, the pluperfect: the turning before he knew there was a turning, the choice made before he had known there was such a thing as choice, so that any future he might have wanted glimmered in that unreachable place, the might-have-been?”

Who would ever think that the explanation of a verb tense could encapsulate a family tragedy so beautifully?


#SundaySentence from Claire Messud’s The Last Life


Following the lead of Erika Dreifus at The Practicing Writer, I’m posting my Sunday Sentence on my blog. Let me admit first that I’m eating crow here. I tweeted some time ago to the creator of the Sunday Sentence project, David Abrams of The Quivering Pen, that I wasn’t sure how I felt about people posting links to their Sunday sentences on their blogs rather than directly on Twitter. But then, I’ve had three weeks running where I’ve had to break my Sunday Sentence into two Tweets. And as you will see, part of the beauty of my sentence this week is the punctuation (more on that in a moment). So to break this sentence into two would have done it injustice.

The sentence appears at the conclusion of a pivotal and fairly devastating scene in Claire Messud’s The Last Life, a soaring yet intimate epic of a tale about a half-French Algerian (or pied noir) and half-American family, still reeling from the paternal side of the family’s exile from the former French department in the dying days of the Algerian revolution. The novel is narrated by the teenaged daughter, Sagesse. In the scene, she has brought home some friends, only to catch her father in the midst of… well, I won’t spoil it.

My Sunday Sentence comes from the passage in which Sagesse reflects on the effect her discovery has had on her understanding of her father, her family, and herself. “She,” in this sentence, refers to the person with whom Sagesse caught her father, although Sagesse never actually sees “her” in the flesh.

I admire this sentence for the grace with which it carries its weight within the paragraph, the scene, and the entire story:

“She, of herself—her features or the quality of her soul—matters not at all; she merely orders the narrative, and so can’t be left out.”

It’s Messud’s use of em dashes here that changes everything. How often do em dashes work formally to underscore meaning in such a gorgeous way? “She, of herself” is separated from “matters not at all” by “her features or the quality of her soul” – I read this as an adolescent daughter’s attempt to erase her father’s betrayal of her mother, her brother, and the family. But there is actually nothing “mere” about her role in the narrative. Indeed, “she can’t be left out.” And so, in the very statement in which Sagesse attempts to efface “her” presence, she demonstrates that “she” must remain. This sentence speaks to the impossibility of unbreaking what has been broken, of recovering what has been lost. And so this sentence indicates the point of rupture between the last life and the next. In other words, you can never return to the past. It is here that Sagesse realizes that you can never really go home again. 

Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them

You can read reviews extolling the virtues of this novel all over the place right now (like this one from the Boston Globe), and it’s already making local bookstore bestseller lists. I was interested to check the novel out fairly quickly, since based on what I’d read of the story, it is, like my novel, about traveling elsewhere to work through grief and uncover something about the person/people you’ve lost, and your own identity in relation to that person. (Whew, that was awkward – there must be an actual name for this genre, right?)

More simply put, You Are One of Them is “a bildungsroman for the atomic age,” says Lauren Groff.  The novel tells the story of Sarah, who, after college, follows the mystery of what happened to her childhood best friend, Jenny, after she had allegedly died in a plane crash when the girls were ten. It’s 1995 and Sarah has received a mysterious email from one Svetlana, teasingly suggesting that Jenny is alive and living in Moscow. Sarah goes to Russia; interesting stuff ensues. That’s basically what I understood of the novel before I picked it up off the front display at The Book Table. I had one my book lover materialist moments, reveling in both the look and feel of the cover (the title and surrounding “burn mark” are set in relief): 


I was standing there, appreciatively running my fingers over the book jacket. The store was busy; Rachel was behind the counter, and she leaned around the customer she was chatting with to call to me, “Is that You Are One of Them?”

I nodded and smiled. “I’ve been hearing a ton about this book.”

Rachel nodded back, “I started it. It’s pretty great, from what I’ve read so far.”

“Ah, cool.” So then I opened the book, and the opening lines of the prologue had me hooked right away. Let’s see if it does the same thing for you:

“In Moscow I was always cold. I suppose that’s what Russia is known for. But it is winter to a degree I could not have imagined before I moved there. Winter not of the pristine, romantic Doctor Zhivago variety but a season so insistent and hateful that all hope freezes with your toes.”

Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s What You Are Now Enjoying

whatyouarenowenjoying-final1I read an interview with Sarah Gerkensmeyer a few weeks ago at Fiction Writers Review, and went looking for her new collection of short stories, What You Are Now Enjoying (Autumn House Press) right away. This is fabulist domestic fiction, intimate and prismatic, comforting and scary all at once. The characters are complex: not all of them are exactly likable, but they are all deeply sympathetic figures.

It’s too reductive, perhaps, to call Gerkensmeyer’s work “domestic” as a genre—with all that the term implies—so I’ll add that for those who like the short stories of Karen Russell and George Saunders, What You Are Now Enjoying serves as a somewhat quieter, less rococo-esque counterpart.