by Mandakini Arora
Book: The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2022
“The revulsion of having to talk about our mother’s uterus was bad enough, but imagining yourself in a freezer, for years, was otherworldly.” Phoebe, the latecomer in The Latecomer, is the youngest of Salo and Johanna Oppenheimer’s children but is embryonically the same age as her triplet siblings Harrison, Lewyn, and Sally. They were all created by in vitro fertilization in 1981. Just before the triplets graduate school, Phoebe is born via surrogacy from a frozen embryo.
Korelitz’s novel is about family dysfunction, art, and the mores of late-twentieth-century, upper-class New York families.
Salo and Johanna, both Jewish, first meet in tragic circumstances when Salo is at Cornell. After marriage they buy a house in Brooklyn—to Salo’s Fifth Avenue parents’ dismay. Salo finds marriage and fatherhood less joyful than collecting art. He spends increasing time in the warehouse that houses his growing art collection. The Oppenheimer triplets do not care for one another. At their mother’s behest, they pose annually for a birthday photo on Martha’s Vineyard while desperately wanting to escape home—“as a family ... a failure.” At one annual gathering, after the triplets have left home, fractures dramatically widen. Tragedy follows. Phoebe grows up and works to repair ruptures.
The book packed in too much, but I loved Korelitz’s light, humorous voice. For example, Salo faints in a German museum, exhibiting “Stendahl syndrome ... Dizziness, confusion, even fainting, usually by foreign visitors in the act of viewing great art.” Johanna is struck that restaurant meals with Salo’s parents involve “hushed service and frightening silverware.” Chapter headings, such as “Light Meat vs. Dark: In which Harrison Oppenheimer’s Taste for Chicken is Forever Compromised,” are endearingly quaint.
While not a page turner, the novel was intriguing, and I grew to look forward to my visits with the Oppenheimers.
Mandakini co-chairs the AWA Writers’ Group, which meets on the second and fourth Thursday of every month. She is a historian who enjoys reading and writing stories and browsing in secondhand bookstores. Read her book reviews here and on Instagram: @travelling_bookmark