The Late­com­er

  • Review
By – August 22, 2022

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s lat­est nov­el is about fam­i­ly: the oblig­a­tions one has — or doesn’t have — the secrets we keep, and the sto­ries we car­ry. The nov­el fol­lows the Oppen­heimers, a wealthy New York City – based fam­i­ly. The par­ents, Salo and Johan­na, meet in col­lege under dev­as­tat­ing cir­cum­stances and begin a life togeth­er that even­tu­al­ly includes IVF and triplets. Despite final­ly hav­ing the chil­dren she des­per­ate­ly want­ed, Johan­na real­izes that there are no strong famil­ial bonds; the sib­lings aren’t par­tic­u­lar­ly close, her mar­riage feels ten­u­ous, and it’s almost like they are five indi­vid­u­als sim­ply liv­ing under the same roof.

That all changes when Johan­na decides to add anoth­er child to the fam­i­ly, going back to a left­over embryo after the triplets have left for col­lege. When the three return home for the sum­mer after their fresh­man year, things come to a head one night, and what hap­pens next alters all of their lives for­ev­er. More than a decade lat­er, the fam­i­ly late­com­er,” Phoebe, may be the key to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and togeth­er­ness — as well as the guide to find­ing long-buried answers.

The chap­ters cen­ter on dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, giv­ing an in-depth look at the motives, lean­ings, and feel­ings of each. Kore­litz drops hints in every chap­ter that aren’t entire­ly clear until a chap­ter or two lat­er. The result of this slow burn and even­tu­al reveal is that by the end of the book, the grad­ual peel­ing away feels like a mon­u­men­tal achieve­ment of craft.

The char­ac­ters aren’t always lik­able; in fact, for much of the nov­el, they aren’t. But that’s anoth­er tes­ta­ment to Korelitz’s sto­ry­telling abil­i­ties. The read­er keeps on, want­i­ng to find out what will hap­pen to each char­ac­ter and know the answers to under­ly­ing secrets or suspicions.

The Oppen­heimers’ Jew­ish­ness is not a main part of the book but rather hov­ers in the back­ground. Their Judaism is not mere­ly a plot point to move the sto­ry for­ward, though — Kore­litz weaves it into the char­ac­ters’ lives so that it feels like a nat­ur­al exten­sion of them.

While this is a book about famil­ial con­flicts, that almost seems too easy a descrip­tion. This is a case study of a fam­i­ly: the inter­re­la­tions, and the reper­cus­sions of cer­tain deci­sions that rip­ple out toward the next gen­er­a­tion. Through her char­ac­ters, Kore­litz sub­tly asks: What are the oblig­a­tions we have to each oth­er? What is expect­ed of us, as fam­i­ly? Is rec­on­cil­i­a­tion always pos­si­ble, and is it owed anyone?

Jaime Hern­don is a med­ical writer who also writes about par­ent­ing and pop cul­ture in her spare time. Her writ­ing can be seen on Kveller, Undark, Book Riot, and more. When she’s not work­ing or home­school­ing, she’s at work on an essay collection.

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