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The Latecomer


The Latecomer

The first line of Leo Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA reads, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Case in point: the Oppenheimer clan in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s latest novel, THE LATECOMER. In this twisty, character-driven story, we see how the best-laid plans are sometimes torn asunder through actions, inaction and by fate.

During college, the family patriarch, Salo, was involved in a car accident that killed his then-girlfriend, Mandy, and a fraternity brother, Daniel. This tragedy mars his entire life: “Sometimes he wondered who he might have become if his Jeep hadn’t hit that rock and sent the four of them tumbling through space, but he could never quite see this theoretical version of himself. That person was as much a stranger to himself as the actual person, the tumbling person, he knew himself to be.” Its lasting effect has turned Salo into a scarred shadow of himself.

"Fans of complex family dramas like Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS or Claire Messud’s THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN will relish this engrossing read, either relating to the Oppenheimers or thanking your lucky stars that you’re not them."

At Mandy’s funeral, Salo meets Johanna, a casual friend of the deceased, who feels so deeply for the young man that she makes it her mission in life to heal whatever wounds he endured and be the ultimate partner for him, despite her humble beginnings: “Our mother wasn’t remarkable like Mandy Bernstein. She was an ordinary girl from a family so average and undistinguished that she cringed at their inadequacies and then again at her own disloyalty.”

Johanna would be the one to surround him with affection and security, providing that loving family he seemingly lacked: “From this moment forward it was all going to be about our father, and the great purpose of her life would be to love him enough to relieve him of his great burden, and to free him from that one, terrible shard of time in which he was so unfairly trapped, and to salve at last that wound of his, that one that wouldn’t heal. It didn’t occur to her, and wouldn’t for years, that she wasn’t the one --- the only one --- who’d ever be capable of doing that.”

After marrying, Salo and Johanna buy a large, albeit slightly rundown home in Brooklyn Heights in the 1970s, some time before its complete gentrification, and aim to start their family there. At least that’s what Johanna was planning. She starts fervently preparing to be pregnant but neglects to inform her husband. By the time she determines that they need medical intervention, she  already had been trying for three years. Her doctor suggests IVF treatments, and so begins the arduous mission of giving Salo offspring:

“How she came to despise the use of the word ‘journey’ to describe this, the grating, grueling, sometimes boring, always excruciating business of trying and failing to become pregnant.” Finally, they find themselves pregnant with triplets, two boys and a girl. But despite her best efforts to build the family unit, Johanna has failed to recognize that Salo has been drifting away, immersing himself in his budding Outsider Art collection and trying to assuage his own guilt.

Johanna also did not realize that none of her children would develop a close bond with each other or with their parents: “Not one of the three --- Harrison (the smart one), Lewyn (the weird one), or Sally (the girl) --- had a speck of genuine affection for either of the others, or had ever once thought of a sister or a brother with anything resembling a sibling bond, let alone as counterparts in a tender and eternal family relationship…. They were two adults plus three children, made concurrently. That they were five humans cohabiting. That they were not, and never had been, a family.”

As the triplets grow up and are readying for college, Johanna fears that she will find herself alone and bereft. So she decides at the age of 48 to have a fourth child via surrogate. The result is Phoebe, our titular character and narrator/Greek chorus who leads us through the trials and tribulations of her fractured family.

THE LATECOMER is a welcome departure from Korelitz’s usual, more thriller-skewing fare, like her earlier novel, YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN (which served as the basis for the hit HBO series, “The Undoing”). Navigating the ebbs and flows of one privileged New York City family might not seem relatable to some, but in the capable hands of Korelitz, we see how she carefully sculpts her characters and their motivations, making us anxiously turn those pages.

Fans of complex family dramas like Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS or Claire Messud’s THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN will relish this engrossing read, either relating to the Oppenheimers or thanking your lucky stars that you’re not them.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on June 3, 2022

The Latecomer
by Jean Hanff Korelitz

  • Publication Date: June 6, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250790786
  • ISBN-13: 9781250790781