The new book from bestselling author Jean Hanff Korelitz is a satisfyingly sprawling saga about an enviably wealthy but appallingly dysfunctional Jewish-American family.
The story, which opened in the early 1970s and concludes four and a half decades later, centers on the Oppenheimer triplets. Salo and Johanna’s children were conceived in 1981 with the help of Manhattan’s top infertility clinic. There is Harrison, “the smart one”; Lewyn, “the strange one”; and Sally, “the girl”. Bound by biology, but otherwise as detached and discrete as three individuals can be, each is a millstone around the other’s neck; all three “in full flight from each other, as far back as their ancestral petri dish”.
In fact, this whole family is connected by increasingly thin threads. For the casual observer, the Oppenheimers have it all. Salo makes a pretty penny running the family’s investment firm. They live in a coveted brownstone on the Brooklyn Esplanade (purchased in 1979, just before anyone else), spend the summers at their home on Martha’s Vineyard, and their children attend a respected, left-leaning, “motley” Brooklyn prep school that values effort over achievement. But behind that polished exterior lurks disorder and misery without end.
Despite poor Johanna’s best efforts to achieve some intimacy between them, the Oppenheimers are just “five people living together [ . . . ] They weren’t family and never were.” Salo, on the other hand, isn’t a traditional villain, but he is a troubled soul who barely sticks together. Still traumatized by the horrific car accident he was in as a young college student – in which both his then-girlfriend and best friend died – his only solace lies in his art collection, which he keeps in a specially designed, air-conditioned, high security camp. His refuge from the world.
Korelitz sensitively cradles man and woman, both mired in their own loneliness and pain, tenderly but honestly about their wounds and failures. When in the second of the book’s three parts — which begins in the fall of 2000, when the triplets go to college — their perspective is trumped by that of their children, it can’t help but feel like a bit of a loss. Mainly because this shift is preceded by Johanna’s most desperate, most dramatic moment.
As the triplets fly out of the nest and their marriage falls apart, she recalls that the fertility clinic has one last blastocyst frozen. This is where the “latecomer” of the novel’s title comes into play, which will first blast the family apart and then reunite them 17 years later.
She adds another string to her bow with every new book Korelitz publishes, and she is a writer of many talents. You should have known (2014) – later adapted into the significantly less effective HBO TV series The doomstarring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant – was a clever, psychologically intense entry into the then-popular marital thriller genre. The plotpublished last year, provided a page-turning puzzle that also delved into the grim morality of plagiarism.
Now with The latecomer, she has served up a contemporary play on the great, baggy 19th-century novel. It’s a little too mannered to strictly qualify as a state-of-the-nation piece; Nonetheless, class, race, and politics all play their part, and to particularly entertaining effect as far as Harrison’s plot is concerned. (There’s a straight line between the ninth-grader who joins the swim team “because he liked that people didn’t talk to him when he had his head under the water” and the young, confident conservative who works as a regular pundit appears on Fox News. )
Packed with incidents – a tragic accident, an extramarital affair, a secret love child – and equally heavy with revelations and reconciliation, there is something slightly over the top about it all, every plot twist meticulously constructed.
Korelitz’s prose verges on verbosity, and is free and loose with its exclamation marks. However, one gets the distinct impression that she pokes fun at every flourish, especially when it comes to her chapter headings, in the grand tradition of Dickens or Fielding: “In which plans are made for an early break, and every farce or a The tragedy of vengeance is reaching its inevitable conclusion.” In truth, The latecomer is a little of both, which makes it so deliciously appealing.
The latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Faber £8.99, 560 pages/Celadon Books $28, 448 pages
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