LAST LAST CHANCE
By Fiona Maazel
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 337 pages, $25
Lucy Clark is a 30-year-old drug addict (downers, mostly) who grew up in a 7,000-square-foot New York City apartment, whose father killed himself after a deadly strain of plague disappeared from his lab under mysterious circumstances, whose mother is a crackhead, whose precocious 12-year-old half-sister is obsessed with plague and whose grandmother, Agneth, is convinced that reincarnation is possible and that she, indeed, has lived before. There’s also a best friend who married the only man Lucy ever truly loved, as well as Lucy’s current boyfriend, Stanley, an alcoholic seeking a uterus for his dead wife’s frozen eggs, and a host of other characters who make Fiona Maazel’s debut novel Last Last Chance alternately entertaining and frustrating.
The first half of the book is so aggressively eccentric and disjointed, and the narrator’s motives so difficult to understand, that the average reader may simply shrug and give up, irritated by what seems like nothing more than literary calisthenics. In several chapters, without warning, the narrator changes from Lucy to any number of reincarnated souls. Through their stories, Ms. Maazel seems to be trying to make a statement about the randomness of life and how much we don’t know about who we are and where we came from. Or maybe she’s making the case for reincarnation; or showing off the head-spinning quantity of historical research that seems to have gone into her novel.
EVERYONE IN LAST Last Chance is exhaustingly madcap and quirky. One character who made her fortune after starting a hat company in her native Norway is obsessed with runes and the stories of the Norse gods. She throws a cocktail party in her apartment when she’s high on crack and regales her guests with ancient Norse tales.
Lucy has been wearing the collar that belonged to her mother’s dead Neapolitan mastiff—for five years. She also obsessively phones her ex-boyfriend Eric and his new wife (her ex-best friend, heir to a Home Shopping Network fortune) at 3 a.m. and doesn’t say anything.
We’re supposed to accept that Lucy is still in love with Eric, though he seems like little more than a cipher in Ms. Maazel’s telling, and Lucy’s understanding of her love for him is, like much of her thought process, childlike: “Just the sight of him reduces me to the basics. I need food, water, shelter, Eric. I’d like to crawl under his shirt and stay there. I’d like to pitch a cot under his shirt and live there.” Perhaps the point is that there isn’t really anything special about Eric beyond the fact that he was once nice to Lucy and then betrayed her horribly—and this somehow illustrates her stunted emotional state. In any case, it grows tedious.
It’s difficult, in other words, to feel much attachment to these characters, inasmuch as they seem like refugees from the set of The Royal Tenenbaums, with extras from Girl, Interrupted.
The novel is set in an almost faceless New York City. Lucy leaves her huge apartment to go to 12-step meetings while her half-sister makes a macabre scrapbook of plague news. Lucy seems to have wandered her way through her 20’s in and out of rehab, depressed. There’s more than a faint whiff of the poor little rich girl about her, and she’s so stubbornly mopey in the first half of the book that it’s not much fun to read about her travails.
Which is too bad, because it’s around the beginning of the second half that things start to get more interesting. There’s a visit to yet another rehab center, this one in Texas, where the threat of plague becomes discomfortingly more real, and gradually the story becomes urgent in a way that’s missing from the earlier drug-addled haze. The final few chapters are so heartfelt and moving that the author can almost be forgiven her self-indulgent beginning.
But then again, it’s a different kind of story that Fiona Maazel is telling at the end of the novel—a story of recovery and redemption. And even though Lucy has put the reader through an obstacle course to get there, it’s hard not to feel a little more kindly toward her. She has, after all, come quite a long way.
Doree Shafrir is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.