Book Review: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley

by Notorious Spinks on 03.31.2011



In Psalm 90:10, the scripture tells us, “Seventy years are given to us! Some even live to eighty.”  In the words of my grandma, Ptolemy Grey is definitely “on borrowed time” baby.

last days of ptolemy greyAt ninety-one years old, Ptolemy Grey is one of the world’s forgotten: by his family, by his friends, by even himself. Marooned in a cluttered Los Angeles apartment overflowing with mementos from his past, Ptolemy sinks deeper into lonely dementia and into a past that’s best left buried. He’s determined to pass the rest of his days with only his memories for company. Until, at his grandnephew’s funeral, he meets Robyn and experiences a seismic shift, in his head, his heart, and his life.

Seventeen and without a family of her own, Robyn is unlike anyone Ptolemy has ever known. She and Ptolemy form an unexpected bond that reinvigorates his world. Robyn will not tolerate the way he has allowed himself to live, skulking in and out of awareness barely long enough to cash his small pension checks, living in fear of his neighbors and the memories that threaten to swallow him. With Robyn’s help, Ptolemy moves from isolation back into the brightness of friendship and desire. But Robyn’s challenges also push Ptolemy to make a life-changing decision that will affect both of them: to recapture the clarity and vigor of his fading mind and unlock the secrets he has carried for decades.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey took me on an emotional rollercoaster.  The way that Mosley cultivated the various relationships throughout the novel was epic.  He took no prisoners as he fed off of pure emotion and churned out a story that deserves to be read by the masses.

From the first page I fell in love with Ptolemy Usher Grey.  Mosley opened the novel with a letter written to Robyn.  From this letter I learned instantly that Papa Grey, as he was affectionately called, was not one who went  along with the status quo.

After reading this letter I wanted to know more about Robyn.  Who is she?  I knew from the synopsis that she was only 17-years-old but I wondered out loud, “Why is he leaving his inheritance to this little girl?”  The things that I found out about Robyn made me love her, laugh at her, cry for her and even admire her.

I want you to know that everybody in my family is counting on you.  They might not like you.  They might be mad that I made you my heir.  But in the end they will all be better for your strength, my guidance, and Coy’s righteous crime so many years ago.

Ptolemy is one of those characters who I just wanted to sit down and drink coffee with.  I wanted to ask him questions about his life as a boy in the South and hear more of the stories that Uncle Coy shared with him.

“Oil is the earth’s blood,” Coy had told Li’l Pea one day.  “Men  cut deep into the world’s skin an’ suck out the blood like it belong to them.  That’s why they’s earthquakes and tidal waves, because the earth is our mother, but she don’t like our ways.”

Then there was the dialogue…  I felt like I was a fly on the wall intruding…

“What’s a soul, Coy?” Li’l Pea had asked his mentor and friend.

For a long time the old man sat and puffed on his cherrywood pipe.  After a few minutes went by, Ptolemy thought that he wouldn’t get an answer to his question.  This wasn’t unsual.  Sometimes Coy didn’t answer.  Ptolemy knew that sometimes he had to find his own solutions.

“Do you look at your mama sometimes and feel love in your heart for her?” Coy asked.

“Yeah … I guess.”

“It’s either yes or no.”

“Yeah.  Sometimes when I come home and she’s cookin’ an’ the house smell like chicken and dumplin’s an she see me and smile I get the jitters in my legs and start laughin’ an’ she smiles harder and calls me her li’l brown nut.”

“That love in your heart is your soul,” Coy said.

“But … but what if I said no?”

“Some people lose they souls along the way.  They don’t feel no love or pride or that there’s somethin’ in the world bettah than they lives.”

“How do you lose your soul, Coy?”

“Because,” he said, “it is a delicate thing, a special thing.  You can live without it, but you might as well be dead.  That’s why heaven an’ hell is always fightin’ over the souls’a men.  Our souls, when we got’em, is so beautiful that angels always lookin’ to take’em.   That’s why when the Devil comes up on you you got to hold tight on the love in your heart.”

You see what I mean?  The dialogue between Ptolemy aka Li’l Pea and Coy was priceless.  I often found myself wanting more of it.

Through out this novel Mosley takes us into the life of Ptolemy but gives us a bird’s-eye view into his thinking.  It was as if I were sitting on one of his brain cells(like a magic carpet ride) checking out everything that was going on inside of Ptolemy’s head.  I even questioned if my grandma, who’s suffering with dementia, feels like this sometimes. I loved how current events would trigger a thought from an event in his past.  It was like he was living in the past but he just so happened to be in the present.  If that makes sense to you.

Another character I loved was Shirley “Double-u ara eye en gee” Wring. Ptolemy met Shirley at the bank when she needed some money on a bill.  She offered Ptolemy some collateral (her treasure) but he refused.  However, as I read on I realized that it was her presence and her treasure that made Ptolemy remember his treasure.

I could go on and on how great of a book this is.  This is my first time reading a book by Mosley but I’m glad I started with this one.  I think I’ll always remember how he weaved the lives of the characters together, especially Ptolemy and Robyn but he seemed to balance it out with Shirley.   There was never a dull moment in this book for me and it was skillfully plotted.  The theme throughout the book was love and loyalty.  It reminds us of how far we go for family and even the sacrifices that family tends to make for us.

Ptolemy gave up the longer life he could have lived for just a few weeks.   He agreed to take an unapproved experimental drug.  I know that he wanted to remember but I think he wanted to remember not only for himself but for his family…for Robyn and his deceased great-nephew Reggie. Ptolemy knew he was making a deal with the Devil but he did it anyway.

At 8:30 there came a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” Ptolemy asked.

“Dr. Ruben, Mr. Grey.  Can I come in?”

Ptolemy opened the door and said, “Hello Satan.”

This honestly was my 2nd favorite quote in the book.

After I read The Last Day of Ptolemy Grey one my favorite poems came to mind, If by Rudyard Kipling.  I had to remember this poem in school and I still remember it.  The verse that stuck out the most was:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

If you’ve read this book please feel free to link your review so I can read it.



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