a labyrinthine family saga à la Franzen
American author Jean Hanff Korelitz has a knack for producing clever and psychologically astute page-turners. The Plot, which revolves around a case of identity theft, was the most entertaining beach read of 2021, while his adaptation of his 2014 noir thriller You Should Have Known (renamed The Undoing) was the most entertaining beach read of 2021. HBO’s most-watched TV show of 2020. His new novel, The Latecomer, combines his interests in constructed identities and marital disarray in a labyrinthine, old-fashioned family saga à la Jonathan Franzen.
The Oppenheimers are certainly an unhappy family in their own way. Salo, of wealthy Jewish descent, is haunted by the deaths of two high school friends, killed when the car he was driving hit a rock in the road. Despite the loving care of his wife, Johanna, he struggles to find solace in family life, painstakingly achieved after the sixth cycle of triplets produced by IVF. Yet even at a young age, his two sons and daughter harbor an implacable mutual hatred that only grows as they approach adulthood.
Poor Johanna, meanwhile, maintains a grip on her willful delusion of family harmony, lining the staircase walls of their Brooklyn townhouse with birthday photos of her offspring and ignoring the way her husband spends almost all his free time with his art collection. , in a nearby warehouse. It’s not until she finds out what else he’s doing that she pulls out her last frozen embryo and, with the help of a “gestational carrier”, has another baby, Phoebe, just when his three older children succeed in their escape. to college.
Korelitz writes with such effortless fluidity that you can almost see the sentences springing, fully formed, onto the page. She takes luxurious time detailing every inch of her canvas, whether it’s Salo’s restless “tumble” sensations in the years following the accident – from which he suddenly finds respite in the arresting presence of a painting of a then-unknown Cy Twombly – or the teenage triplets struggling to figure out who he is. He’s the kind of writer who will be happy to dedicate a page or two to a pot story of a wandering brother who never appears. And she slips into every Oppenheimer’s head with an intimacy so effortless and confident that we see the world as they do.
She’s also comically effervescent about the quagmire of modern American identity politics. The triplets, Harrison, Sally and Lewyn, attend the kind of school that doesn’t award grades and forgoes the classics in favor of classes on resolving interpersonal conflict. There’s a funny scene in which Lewyn attends a mock Passover party at college with his Mormon friends, in which an orange has been placed next to the lamb and horseradish to symbolize “the inclusion of all sexualities and of all genders”. Harrison, a staunch supporter of meritocracy, opposes his school’s “anti-intellectualism” and seeks out like-minded male conservatives at a college that rejects liberal orthodoxies. Still, it’s a shame that Korelitz, after giving credibility to both sides of the culture wars, then rigs the debate against Harrison, who goes from a not entirely unreasonable iconoclast to an expert whose quasi-white supremacist views make of him a staple on Fox TV.
Yet despite its supreme writing confidence, The Latecomer feels like a pretty sloppy book. Much of the drama hinges on the triplets’ fomented hostility, but for no reason given, the reader struggles to buy into the psychological dynamic. It’s almost always dubious when a novelist invokes 9/11 for plot purposes; Korelitz’s use of it here to generate family tragedy seems timely. Various thematic threads, notably the human instinct to hoard, run through the narrative, but in a novel that is stronger in breadth than depth, their metaphorical resonance is diffuse and fanciful rather than satisfying.
As the novel progresses, Korelitz’s approach to the plot becomes more and more reminiscent of a good fairy madly waving her wand. The final third is told by Phoebe, now 17, who decides to settle her family once and for all with a sequence of interventions as magically effective as the denouement of any Shakespearean comedy. There’s a bizarre, seismic revelation about Harrison’s best friend, a black academic, but it’s dispatched so quickly it leaves the poor reader breathless. The quixote effect is surely intentional, but this reader felt wronged.
The Latecomer is published by Faber at £8.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books