Last Updated on July 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511
Essentially and simply, The Last Girls by Lee Smith is about friendship. However, the major takeaway of the book is about the decisions we make in life and how we live with the consequences of those decisions. The five women get together after years apart and reflect on their travels down the Mississippi River during their youth. This backstory allows the author to interweave flashbacks to create a compelling subplot. The subplot itself is integral to the overall narrative arc because the book is essentially a character study.
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Therefore, by showing the history of their friendship and their individual experiences in the past, the author is able to turn his characters into multidimensional people, filled with flaws and suppressed emotions. Like other stories in literature, television, and film that center on a group of friends (e.g., Sex and the City, Friends, Stand By Me, etc.), each main character is an archetype or caricature of a particular personality. The book explores these characters as individuals as well as how they function together, as friends. The Last Girls fleshes out these somewhat reductive caricature descriptions, especially shown through the passage of time and the use of the subplot. This technique defies its own title: these are not merely “girls” trapped in their youth and devalued for it—these are women who have led full and dynamic lives.
Arguably, the most memorable character in the group is "Baby" Ballou, a wealthy party girl and the only member who is deceased in the present day. Her character's profile, through a series of flashbacks, provides the most telling example of Lee Smith's style as a writer. Smith initially presents Baby as a one-dimensional rich girl—the most energetic member of the group—but then portrays her as someone who was actually aware of her flaws but tries to hide them behind her extroverted personality: she is someone who is insecure and depressed.
Smith’s treatment of Baby as a connecting factor adheres the plot together. It is Baby’s nostalgia for her college friends and their youthful adventure, one expressed before her death, that tethers the storyline and propels it forward.
However, the other main characters also show depth and dark sides to their personalities. One character was involved in an extramarital affair, while another suffered from health issues. These contrasts between energy and spiritual exhaustion—as well as idealism and cold reality—highlight the passage of time. The flashbacks show the girls who they once were, and the present-day scenes show the women that they've become. Despite all of the tribulations and varied experiences from youth to adulthood, the remaining friends maintain a bond that is unbreakable. They have grown and changed—not remained static—and have found a way to grow with each other once more.
Smith’s novel creates the space for tragedy, comedy, and change. None of the characters can remain boxed in for too long. They are drawn out, contradictory, and messy just as real people are. This technique creates a rich storyline that is built with humanity in mind.