'Geezer Lit' has become a booming publishing niche as we readers wrinkle, but The Last Laugh is so much more than a print version of The Golden Girls. Freed's one-liners on subjects like sleep apnea machines are hilarious; so are the excerpts from Ruth's columns, which she writes for a senior publication called So Long Magazine. But Freed also gives more somber subjects their due, such as loneliness and the fear of looming dependence. The Last Laugh is a Campari spritzer of a novel: bubbly and colorful, but with a underlying note of bitterness to add satisfying complexity.
If on its surface The Last Laugh is a warts-and-all repudiation of the late-in-life female empowerment yarn as typified by the movies Enchanted April and “Shirley Valentine,” the gimlet-eyed Freed is intent on something deeper and more unsettling. Can we ever really absent ourselves, even briefly, from the important people in our lives? Is it lunacy to think we have an essential self — a self that exists outside our relationships to other people? Why is freedom so terrifying? ... So chockablock is The Last Laugh with unregenerate characters saying off-putting or vile things to one another that this pantywaist reader occasionally longed for the quietudes found in the work of that other chronicler of women of a certain age, Barbara Pym ... In the end, Freed’s candor works to lift the veil off the misperception that life after 60 consists mostly of conversations about sciatica or ceaseless and slightly abject devotion to a tiny, shivery dog.
[Freed's] dramatic scenes of stalking, adultery, murder and reincarnation make The Last Laugh a superb option for a comic thriller movie ... Freed nimbly dramatizes the strengths and flaws of the women as they discover freedom from work and family ... Sometimes the exuberant burlesque is hard to follow because the women command a complicated retinue of minor characters. Freed wisely opens the novel with descriptions of the 19 'Dramatis Personae,' a list to which this reader frequently returned. Clearly, Freed had a blast zipping through the adventures of these spirited, droll women. She excels at their frank, snappy repartee. And she surprises readers to the end, with an epilogue launching the four friends on new escapades in their 70s.
“[A] perfect summer read for anyone who loved Delia Ephron’s Siracusa or Emma Straub’s The Vacationers. Freed’s narrative style is delightful . . . And the characters are relatable, bickering and compromising and loving each other all the same. Sun-dappled and sea-splashed, this is the best type of escapism.”
Comic relief is provided by the (often painfully earnest) politically correct edits a faceless editor provides for Ruth’s columns, but macabre and antic episodes may distract the reader's attention from Freed's observations about women’s lives and second-wave feminism woven throughout the tale. Fraught relationships between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, and men and women are explored and detailed against the backdrop of usually perfect scenery, but it is the sometimes-madcap behavior of Freed’s characters that may be the takeaway for many readers. Replete with references to Greek mythology, Freed’s modern retelling of a timeless tale of self-fulfillment wanders into surprising territory along the way.
Freed juggles a cast of interrelated characters that runs into the dozens, the most notable of whom is Gladness, Bess’s Zulu best friend and the former nanny to her children, and which also includes several former still-hunky lovers. If the various children and grandchildren who pop in and out, testing their elders’ patience, sometimes blur together, the core relationships stay strong, making for a pleasant and diverting read. Ruth’s columns, which occasionally reveal more than she intends about her housemates, add humor.