A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a teenage girl shouting at her mother: “Nature or nurture, it’s all your fault!” Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel is about nature and nurture, how we chart our own way in the world despite our families, and many other subjects as well, but not in the way you might expect. The well-known Philip Larkin poem, “This be the Verse” is apropos. Readers of Korelitz’s last novel, The Plot, will remember how she skewered the writing trade. The satire was hilarious and the main character’s comeuppance at the end was delicious. The Latecomer is also filled with satire, but the novel is more character-driven. It’s about the Oppenheimer family–parents and three children who spiral away from each other in wider and wider arcs and a fourth child, who, well, let’s just say she changes the dynamics. Read it and find out.
Two events set the novel in motion. The first is a car accident, the second is infertility. The accident saddles Salo Oppenheimer with a crushing burden of loss and guilt that his wife Johanna does her best to alleviate. Johanna, desperate for the liveliness of family to fill their large Brooklyn Heights house, decides to try in vitro fertilization. After many failures, three of four viable eggs are implanted in Johanna’s womb. The fourth one is frozen, just in case. All goes well this time, and Johanna and Salo are the parents of triplets Harrison, Lewyn, and Sally. But the triplets share only their gestation in Johanna’s womb; once they are aware of each other’s presence, intense disdain drives them apart. This is not a happy family. Johanna is devastated and Salo, unable to engage, retreats into his own world of art collecting and guilt. When the triplets go off to college, Johanna remembers her last (frozen) egg and decides to take one more chance at a happy family. Phoebe is the fourth Oppenheimer child, the eponymous latecomer.
This is a difficult book to summarize; there’s lots of plot and intense character interaction. I haven’t mentioned the satire that permeates the story, skewering liberals and conservatives alike. Mormonism, hoarding, art collecting, chickens, Cornell, and progressive private schools all make significant appearances. New York City is summoned up in a most satisfying way. Many readers will recognize quotes and references to other books. In the middle, you’ll wonder where it’s all going, but Korelitz ties it up nicely. Will the Oppenheimers ever be content to be part of the same family? That’s what kept me turning the pages.
Other complex family novels that I’ve enjoyed:
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
and, for those of you who need an absorbing thousand-page novel, one of my all-time favorites, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth