Grace's father believes in science and builds his daughter a dollhouse with lights that really work. Grace's mother takes her skinny-dipping in the lake and teaches her about African hyena men who devour their wives in their sleep. Grace's world, of fact and fiction, marvels and madness, is slowly unraveling because her family is coming apart before her eyes. Now eight-year-old Grace must choose between her two very different, very flawed parents, a choice that will take her on a dizzying journey, away from her home in Vermont to the boozy, flooded streets of New Orleans--and into the equally wondrous and frightening realm of her own imagination.
With eloquence and compassion, Jenny Offill weaves a luminous story of a wounded family and of a young girl yearning to understand the difference between fiction, fact, and hope. A novel of vibrant imagination and searing intelligence, Last Things is a stunning literary achievement.
With an ornithologist mother who speaks five languages (including Pig Latin), who was also possibly a CIA spy, a cryptozoologist or just your average maniacal collector of eccentric facts, young Grace Davitt's coming-of-age story is a bizarre kind of linguistic ontological experiment. Her father is "Mr. Science," obsessed with physical data and categorical details to the point of abstraction. Grace's world is one that readers are unlikely ever to have encountered before; riding the line between whimsical and sinister, she is a unique protagonist. Oddly passive in the way that children considered unconventionally brilliant are sometimes deemed by observers, Grace takes control of her destiny, in the wake of her mother's unexplained disappearance, by reinventing language and metaphorizing her life. She continues with the rich and wacky legacy her mother has left her: home schooling; a "secret language" named Annic in which the alphabet's first 13 letters mirror the second 13, and the "cosmic calendar" in which one billion years of real time can be condensed into 24 days. Nothing in this narrative is standard fare: a bizarre mother-daughter road trip, a boy-genius babysitter, the Loch Ness monster and a recurrent theme of psychological anthropomorphism are among the plot elements. In spite of Grace's sometimes unlovable behavior, she is an engaging character. When she bullies a blind girl, Offil's point is clear; Grace's esoteric knowledge and novel socialization inform but cannot finally change the fact that she is a young girl on shaky ground. On the cusp of a definitively weird adolescence, she's brimming with the implosive, even brutal, energy of that impending transformation. Offill's debut is a rare feat of remarkable constraint and nearly miraculous construction of a most unique family.