Last Things is a first novel by an extraordinary talent, a young writer with the stylistic sensibility of a seasoned pro. Jenny Offill nails a stunning debut in the voice of Grace Davitt, a resourceful and precocious eight-year-old at the mercy of two eccentric parents. The Davitts' philosophical differences over nothing less than the nature of the universe and the ascendancy of science over mythmaking stand for much more. Grace's mother, Anna, is an ornithologist, possibly a former spy, and a devoted believer in and lover of sea monsters. Her past is a mystery she's spent her entire life codifying and cataloguing, and she now bestows it to Grace in snippets of cryptic stories, blurry snapshots, and ritual drives to the lake. Jonathan Davitt is the epitome of reason, a high school science teacher who hands out pamphlets titled "Know Your Constitution" to teachers daring to refer to God and prayer in school. He loves his wife but quite possibly does not know her. Their teeter-tottering marriage finds Grace acting as fulcrum but swaying increasingly to her mother's side. The way Grace internalizes their strife and takes as her own each parent's opposing set of convictions produces an inner life more bitter than sweet.
Offill's translation of Grace's only-child longing into this absorbing adult read misses nothing. The distance between adult-Grace, in full command of language and memory, and child-Grace, whose year-in-the-life is being recalled, collapses into a trusting and trustworthy vision. It forms a younger, female echo of the master at this perspective, J. D. Salinger,inCatcher in the Rye. There's something so poignant and rich, unaffected, yet wry about Grace's observations that she seems to speak for childhood itself.
The social detachment of a girl too smart for her own emotional good motivates Grace's every act. Often left to her own devices, Grace chooses the companionship of Edgar, her obsessive-compulsive teenaged babysitter. Himself a collection of eccentric theories and odd behaviors, right down to a soap and hand-washing obsession, Edgar proposes that possibly everyone around them is a robot. Grace quietly imbibes this Vonnegutian theory and secretly renames her classmates with numbers, "to better reflect their metal hearts." When Girl 8 asks Grace what she received on a test, she lies. Caught out, she retaliates by stealing Girl 8's mittens. Eventually Grace's hostilities, including her theft of the class coin collection, land her at home, to be schooled solely by her mother. To that end, Anna paints an entire room navy and covers it in glow-in-the-dark stars, equipping it with a list she calls the cosmic calendar, "everything that's happened since the beginning of time compressed into just one year." In this womb of compressed time and events Sept. 9: Origin of the Solar System, Dec. 27: First birds Anna will teach Grace the essentials.
Anna's lessons "If one day equaled the age of the universe, all of recorded history would be no more than ten seconds" pattern the novel, forming a secondary story to Grace's own. With lists of birds that face extinction, questions and answers about whether any animals glow in the dark, this patchwork of facts, fanciful and real, reflects Last Things' bow to pastiche narrative. Reminiscent of both Maureen Howard's latest, the engaging novel of romance and ideas, A Lover's Almanac , and the darkly hilariousMan or Mango? A Lament by Lucy Ellmann, Last Things relies on the newspaper accounts of strange events, the entries in arcane books like The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained , and the transcription of Anna's private scribblings to create the world as Grace encounters it. In this fashionable "everything and the kitchen sink" style of narrative report, Offill's novel assumes a credulous reader, exactly like Grace.
While Anna and Grace spend their days in idiosyncratic pursuit of the universe's exact time line, Jonathan whirls slowly out of orbit. Routinely quashing fantasy with the weight of fact, he dismisses, for example, the romance of the moon, labeling it a rock. "Poor moon," Anna says when Grace tells her. Soon Anna and Jonathan's contrasting sensibilities take on the armor of allegiance, and Jonathan's new job as TV's "Mr. Science" hits Anna less as a quirky expression of his reason-loving mind than as betrayal. It is on the theme of betrayal that the novel goes subterranean, lost to Grace's state of incomplete knowledge. It may really be that Jonathan's brother, the original "Mr. Science," and Anna once had a tryst. It may be that men from Anna's past, like the one who first viewed the sea monster with her, are entirely fabricated. It may be that Anna's inscrutable anger signifies a straying eye, one that deliberately entrances the love-struck Edgar. Or it may simply be that no one is very real to Anna, least of all her daughter.
In the psychology of Anna, Last Things' throw-lines of imagination and distrust, a need to believe and a need to destroy, weave their most shimmering net. Here, too, Offill tips her literary hand of cards. Anna's lineage provides the unpredictable maternal figures for many a contemporary novel, including the by-now canonical Marilynne Robinson work, Housekeeping , and Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here , which features, like Last Things, a mother-daughter cross-country car odyssey. Anna descends, too, from the tragically manic Maggie Barnes, the "woman with all the problems" and mother of trusting Hattie, in Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons. Two other recent works also amplify this intensely fraught motherly relationship: Laura Kasischke's White Bird in a Blizzard offers the most gruesome solution for this kind of willful woman while the recent highly engaging debut novel, White Oleander , by Janet Fitch, recognizes the violence bubbling beneath the surface of mothers this troubled by their own power and desire. These women are the kind Jessica Lange would play in the movie version beautiful but distracted, generous but fearful, devoted but unreliable. Their shapely hands tremble as their common sense gives way to a narcissistic need so powerful it could swallow them as well as the unfortunate daughter waiting at the wings of the stage for her turn. Careers cannot reach these women; Anna gave hers up for Jonathan. The startling brevity of a moment, something as ephemeral as an image on a homemade movie shot at the wrong speed, best expresses Anna and her type's vulnerability to extinction, one of Last Things' recurring themes. What they leave behind is often a better self, the Graces who pen their mad stories for them in taut and fearless prose.