Triplets, conceived by IVF into a wealthy Jewish family in New York, who never hate each other. A father’s secret, kept secret for generations, which poisons the family for a long time. A mother sinking into despair from an empty nest with a baby too late in life, delivered via a gestational carrier.
Read The Latecomer is to be treated to a garden of literary delights. A resolutely modern social satire! Uplifting chapter titles, like “Summer Lovers: In which Sally Oppenheimer discovers her brother’s serpentine nature and contemplates all the confusing mosh pit of adult life.” Soaring sentences like this, in which Triplet Harrison describes his life to date. “Eighteen years of being pampered, overburdened and supervised, cared for in all the worst ways (and none of the ways that mattered), housed, clothed, fed and entertained in a way commensurate with the endemic wealth of his family.”
What’s not to love about Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 11th book? Absolutely nothing.
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What do novelists find difficult about writing a novel? Absolutely everything.
The best novelists make it look easy, constructing a compelling plot and subplots; character development that makes the player root hard for and/or against the good guys and/or the bad guys; the lyrical prose which makes the sentences sing; settings that invite the reader into new worlds or paint new pictures of familiar worlds. Plus, the social relevance that connects fiction to reality. A narrative tension to keep turning these pages. Rhythm that holds the reader in the palm of the author’s invisible hand. A convincing start. A satisfying ending. Oh, and everything else.
Most novelists achieve something. Many succeed in certain things. Very few novelists – Hanff Korelitz among them, as she has proven in her previous 10 books, including the 2021 novel The parcel– to weave all these qualities into a welcoming net into which its readers can fall with grateful abandon, trusting the book and its author for the strength to hold them back.
The Latecomer introduces us to the Oppenheimer family before it became one. Salo and Johanna meet as teenagers, at the funeral of a friend killed in a car accident. The driver was Salo Oppenheimer.
“Our parents met in central New Jersey, in a conservative synagogue that looked like a brutalist government building somewhere in the Eastern Bloc.” …”Even then, no one blamed him. No one!… It was somehow held together by everyone in the synagogue… that Salo Oppenheimer’s brand new Laredo was rolling at an eminently reasonable speed on a perfectly respectable road when it hit a loose rock and – abruptly, incomprehensibly – rolled over. hand of God himself picked up this vehicle and dropped it on the ground.
A state of established privilege, the novel traces the structuring of the relationship between Salo and Johanna, as first brought to light during their dating. “Salo knew that it was absurd to be a young man in the 1970s (when even women ignored the old ideas about promiscuity), but he had felt unable to cross this chasm. Johanna took charge of the whole thing, one way or another, which meant he was under no obligation to do anything but be accommodating.
Johanna’s role thus becomes more central and more complex. “From that moment on, everything was going to revolve around our father, and the great purpose of his life would be to love him enough to relieve him of his heavy burden, and to free him from this terrible piece of time in which he was so unjustly trapped, and to finally heal his wound, the one that did not heal.
In 1979, now married, the Oppenheimers bought a house on the then sketchy Brooklyn esplanade. “She was a suburban New Jersey girl. For her, Brooklyn was where John Travolta went to the nightclub…and where the subway gangs roamed at will. In an early IVF experience, they give birth to triplets, Harrison, Lewyn and Sally, who are sent to the best private schools in New York.
As the decades pass, Salo loses interest in family life and throws herself into the world of modern art, while Johanna seeks ever more desperately to persuade her mutually unsympathetic triplets to provide her with the perfect family she desires. and claims to have.
“When Harrison called Lewyn big and Sally put on Harrison’s chess medal (which didn’t come from Walden, where everyone got a medal, but from the Brooklyn Chess League, where you actually had to win to get a medal) in the trash, or Harrison did not lift a finger to help his brother overcome homesickness at summer camp – our mother refused to attach great importance to any of these things, because that… she maintained the fragile notion that her three children were devoted to one another.
One of the many pleasures of The Latecomer is its author’s dexterous handling of the times, places, and demographics in which the novel is set. Clearly, Korelitz has strong thoughts and feelings about the personal/psychological theme of his story: how parents are shaped by their own childhood traumas and necessarily pass them on, despite their massive efforts, often against -productive. Korelitz also seems passionate about the social/political theme of the story: the narcissistic hypocrisies of New York’s contemporary wealthy creative class.
“The Walden School…represented…the bright, shining lie of progressive education. At Walden, they had been taught about European genocide against Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, eugenics and lynchings and the utter evil of the Republican Party, all while fanning the flame of their own goodness.
The Latecomer is not a novel based on intrigue and action. The story does not gallop from beginning to end; rather, it moves with the deadpan intentionality of the hooves of horse-drawn carriages slapping the cobblestones, returning to their power packs near New York’s Plaza Hotel. The script of this satirical, incisive and comic New York novel of 439 pages is based on the two tragedies which close it: the opening disaster which lays the foundations of the plot and the final tragedy, shocking but inevitable, which closes it. .
There are many pages in between, but the author’s masterful skills ensure that the reader won’t be eagerly awaiting the next plot point. Rather, the reader is more likely to close the book disappointed that Hanff Korelitz has yet to provide another 439 pages of laughter, slaps, pure delight, and perhaps self-recognition to savor.
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