26 September 2023

The Latecomer

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Jean Hanff Korelitz, Faber, $32.99.

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s last book, The Plot, was a morality play on the issue of authorship and the use of ideas. Some of those concerns come into play in her latest book The Latecomer, but they are dealt with in a very different mode and in a much richer and deeper scenario. The Latecomer is a family drama, an exploration of art and aesthetics, a deeply biting satire and reflection on the human condition done through the lens of some decidedly likeably unlikeable, or at least damaged characters.

The Latecomer is ostensibly the story of the wealthy, Jewish Oppenheimer triplets, born through IVF and out of desperation to their parents Johanna and Salo. Salo carries with him a deep and abiding guilt for the deaths of two friends in a car accident in which he was driver (although not at fault). Johanna is trying to assuage that guilt through her love but Salo finds more solace in modern art and later in the arms of another. The triplets themselves – Harrison, Sally and Lewyn – never get along, despite their mother insisting that they are all one happy family. The central portion of the novel, set in 2000 -2001 is the story of their college years and the damage that they do to each other. This section sometimes feels like a classic American college / coming of age drama. The Latecomer of the novel is Phoebe, born from the fourth fertilised egg as the first three triplets, but eighteen years after the birth of her siblings. As a young adult, Phoebe takes it on herself to try and put the broken pieces of her family back together.

There is little in the way of plot in The Latecomer, this is really a social commentary and character study of the triplets, their parents and later Phoebe (although she is probably the least developed of the six, her agency is in seeing her siblings for what they are). But they are flawed and relatable characters and their stories are engrossing and engaging. And by the end of the book Korelitz has brought these individuals to life.

This is very much an old fashioned style of narrative with extremely wealthy characters at its centre and many have compared to the works of Evelyn Waugh. But it has some very current concerns and along the way Korelitz explores and comments on a range of aspects of modern life, particularly American modern life – progressive education, identity politics, affirmative action, the role of religion, family dysfunction, intergenerational trauma, the nature of art and art collection and even the ongoing impact of 9/11.

Despite the fact that the drama is all interpersonal, among characters who have some not particularly endearing traits, The Latecomer is a heartfelt and engaging novel. And in the end a cathartic one.

Over 850 more reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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