THE LATECOMER by Jean Hanff Korelitz

THE LATECOMER

Jean Hanff Korelitz (jeanhanffkorelitz.com)

Faber & Faber (faber.co.uk)

£8.99

Buy a copy from your favourite independent bookshop

The Oppenheimer triplets…had been in full flight from one another as far back as their ancestral petri dish. 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

As their introduction might suggest – the opening line of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel – the three people at the centre of The Latecomer are a fairly unlikable bunch. As we learn about their origins in the sections that follow, we can’t help but feel it’s no big surprise that they’ve turned out as they have, and yet we’re here for the long haul, Korelitz’s beautiful prose hooking us from the opening line and guiding us through over forty years of Oppenheimer family history.

Korelitz introduces us to the Oppenheimer parents – Salo and Johanna – as they meet in 1972, buy a house in up-and-coming Brooklyn Heights and start a family. Their first and second meetings are more than a little morbid and it quickly becomes apparent that Johanna sees Salo as a project, something to be fixed. The triplets are the result of a long and frustrating fertility program which resulted in three viable eggs being implanted while a fourth is frozen and kept in storage. As the children grow, so they grow apart, all with different interests, and all looking forward to the day when they can escape from the others. Johanna is the only member of the family who maintains any hope of them ever having normal relationships with each other and insists that they all attend the family’s summer cottage on Martha’s Vineyard for their birthday each year, where an annual photograph of the three together is the only record of their childhood. Salo, meanwhile, grows increasingly more distant as he builds his modern art collection and begins an affair with someone from his distant past.

When the triplets reach eighteen and leave for their respective colleges – Harrison to a small New Hampshire college that no-one has heard of; Sally and Lewyn, inconceivably, to Cornell – Korelitz changes the focus from parents to children, but not before Johanna decides to combat the looming empty nest by implanting that fourth egg that has languished in the freezer for so long and producing the novel’s titular Latecomer, Phoebe. This middle section of the novel focuses on the now-grown childrens’ college careers. While Harrison becomes somewhat radicalised in his all-male, right-wing school, Sally and Lewyn deny each other’s existence, leading to some comical moments throughout their tenure.

It is as the book builds towards the climax of the second act that we really begin to see, and appreciate, Korelitz’s genius. This is fiction writing at its finest – every word, every action has its place, and contributes to the wider story. Despite the heft of the book, there is nothing extraneous here, nothing that doesn’t have a purpose within the bigger picture. The second act builds towards the annual family gathering on Martha’s Vineyard, the triplets’ nineteenth birthdays. While it may not be as bloody, this gathering gives George R. R. Martin’s Red Wedding a run for its money in the “destroying a family” stakes. And just when you think it can’t get any worse for the Oppenheimer triplets, Korelitz closes the chapter – and hands the final act to a now-seventeen-year-old Phoebe – with what is probably the single most devastating sentence ever committed to paper. To reveal it would be to spoil the surprise, but expect to hear an audible click as your brain connects the pieces, then spend the next ten minutes staring in wonder at what this brilliant author has done.

I am a relative latecomer (pun most definitely intended) to Jean Hanff Korelitz’s work, having discovered her amidst the hype (and Stephen King’s blurb, if I’m totally honest) surrounding last year’s excellent The Plot. The Latecomer takes her writing to a whole different level, putting this darkly comic family history on a par with the likes of John Irving or Michael Chabon, the sort of literary fiction that proves that a book doesn’t have to fit into a neat genre niche to be interesting, exciting, gripping and, more often than not, laugh-out-loud funny. Within the space of two novels, Korelitz has joined my “must-read’ list. The Latecomer is one of the best books you’II read this year, guaranteed, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what this wonderful writer has up her sleeve next.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.