The Last Samurai


Helen DeWitt




Date Reviewed:

December 16, 2006

picked this book up at the library without reading any reviews, I think I saw the title and thought it might be the book upon which the Tom Cruise movie was based. This book has nothing to do with the Last Samurai movie. The book jacket sounds interesting, a genius child can make an interesting story. Unfortunately, this is book is a bloated failure.

My stated policy is to only review books that I finish, but I confess I could not finish this one. I happened to drop the book one day when I was sitting down to read another chapter, and the bookmark fell out and I lost my place. This book so unenjoyable, why waste more time with it, when there are so many good works waiting to be read? I didn’t want to page through the book, because I realized I had come to loathe Sibylla. Sibylla is the mother of Ludo, the child genius. The first half of the story is written from her perspective as she is raising her prodigy son. The second half is (I think - I got about as far as page 300 before I lost my place and quit on this book) written by Ludo.

It is difficult to write a convincing story about genius. Presumably, the author must be quite clever in order to make the genius character appear smart. Helen DeWitt’s solution is to make her characters fluent in just about every language spoken on earth. So we get Ludo reading Inuit, Ludo reading Greek, Ludo reading Icelandic, Ludo reading Japanese, etc. The pages are full of material that the reader will skip over (unless of course they are bright as Ludo is supposed to be.) I wish an editor had cut out most of this unreadable padding.

My biggest disappointment is that DeWitt’s characters don’t act nearly as bright as you would expect a genius to behave. When Ludo is six years old, Sibylla enrolls him in a standard first grade classroom. Of course, he is bored out of his mind by the material. What is the point of this? Sibylla is an American who moved to England to study at Oxford, but dropped out and now earns a living as a typist. Sibylla watches the movie The Seven Samurai over and over again - judging from the number of times the movie is mention in this novel, Sibylla must seen the movie hundreds if not a thousand times. Is this brilliance or madness?

What I hated most about Sibylla is that she is a snob. Ludo brings home the movie The Magnificence Seven, and Sibylla sneers repeatedly at “the men in tight jeans.” The painter Lord Leighton is reviled (I didn’t finish the book, so I never learn why Sibylla holds him in such low esteemed.) Sibylla attends a 20 hour concert by Yamamoto, a pretentious musical “genius” - at the end of incredibly dull performance only 25 patrons remain in the concert hall. Only then does Sibylla notice that Ludo has wandered away hours ago. Sibylla believes every household should have a copy of Ptolemaic Alexandria in the original Greek.

The central plot of the story is Sibylla will not reveal to Ludo who fathered him. (Ludo is the result of a one night stand by Sibylla with a travel writer named Liberace - another foolish move by the Sibylla the genius.) Eventually, Ludo does discover who his father is, and goes to visit him. Ludo is unimpressed by Liberace. I think I wanted to stop reading at this point because I liked Ludo, and I didn’t want to see him transformed into a younger copy of Sibylla - sneering at lesser mortals, scorning them for their faults.

This novel is incredibly tedious. I don’t understand the high praise awarded by the Amazon website - but perhaps other people enjoying sneering at those “not good enough”. I recommend skipping this book completely. Rent a DVD of the Magnificent Seven and enjoy!