The Last Girls

by Lee Smith

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Last Updated on August 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

Margaret "Baby" Ballou

The character that draws the others together is Margaret, known to her friends as Baby and to her husband as Maggie. As much of the novel is a nostalgic look back on three decades, the relationships between Baby and the others are important. However, in the novel’s present-day setting, Margaret has died. The question remains open of whether her car accident, which led to a fatal plunge off a bridge, was an accident or suicide. The other characters’ opinions are included, but determining the truth about her death is not the novel’s main purpose. Rather, we see the four surviving women in their fifties who had been Baby’s friends in college: Harriet Holding, Courtney Ralston, Anna Todd, and Catherine Wilson. They are all coping with their old friend’s death and reflecting on their own life trajectories. Margaret’s husband, Charlie Mahan, and a former lover, Jeff Carr, also make appearances.

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Although Margaret Ballou serves as the glue that holds the novel together, her characterization is indirect, because she has already passed away when the novel’s action primarily takes place. Not all of the others are deeply concerned about her life after college, but they still agree to come together to scatter her ashes. Margaret is described as sensual and beautiful, the kind of woman who attracted all types of men and who had a sensitive, poetic side. The most divergent views of her are offered by Harriet—who introduced her to Jeff—and Charlie; these two have opposite opinions on the suicide or accident question. Margaret seems to have had a good marriage with Charlie, but there are indications that her physical health was not good.

Harriet Holding

Harriet, Margaret’s former college roommate, introduced her to Jeff Carr, an old friend. Harriet is mired in nostalgia and guilt, believing that Margaret’s rejection of Jeff’s romantic interest back then was the reason Jeff had joined the army, which led to his death. Her current life is as a single college teacher with no apparent personal attachments. She struggles with the idea of marriage and is guilted by the one-off sexual encounter she had with Jeff after he and Baby broke things off—paired with Jeff’s death, this has made her wary of relationships.

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Courtney Ralston

Courtney, married for three decades, also has been having a long-term affair. Her preoccupation during the trip is with her husband’s declining health and her need to stay with him versus her desire to leave and live with her lover. She feels somewhat boxed in by her conservative, Southern life.

Anna Todd

Anna, a famous novelist with thirty-two romances to her credit, had once pursued serious literature. Anna cultivates a flamboyant image and indulges in sexual fantasy. She also laments the stillbirth of her child which had destroyed her marriage.

Catherine Wilson

Catherine makes the trip with Russell, her third husband. She is a sculptor who makes large found-object metal sculptures. She finds the need to attend to Russell’s neurotic preoccupations is a distraction on the river cruise. Catherine’s marriage is depicted as happy, and even still, she struggles with some vague dissatisfaction that she has a difficult time pinpointing.

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