It was an endorsement by Nancy Pearl, the librarian who inspired an action figure, that brought me to this book. I haven’t read a book that was both this gripping and satisfying in ages.
Several times during this unlikely tale, the John McEnroe phrase came to mind: “You cannot be serious,” given the coincidences and exaggerations that came up. Along with those excesses came lovely writing, an apparent love for her characters, and many insightful moments that made this book such a pleasure. When I say she loves her characters, I don’t mean they are always lovable, I mean she gives them background and reason for being who they are. Her takedowns of people and institutions are witty, but not mean-spirited.
This is the story of the Oppenheimer family and begins with the father, Salo. The narrator in describing him seems to forgive his lifelong behavior because of a tragic accident that occurred when he was in college, saying, “He was there, but he was also, as always, in that other place, the tumbling place, the place he was used to now, or if he wasn’t used to it he knew he had to figure out how to be, because it was not going to change.” His wife Johanna married him to take care of him and create a lovely family. That didn’t go well, and after years of struggle they had triplets through in vitro fertilization and then years later a latecomer, the fourth fertilized egg.
Before we get to the offspring, I want to tell of Salo’s great happiness in life. He found joy and more through art and because his family was wildly rich, he could buy whatever he liked. He bought art because of how it made him feel and it turns out Twombly (before he was was well-known) made Salo feel good. He gathered a collection that itself became worth a fortune.
The triplets were never close: at best they were indifferent, but often they were full of hate. We get to know each of these difficult people; Harrison was the worst. He rejected his liberal high school curriculum that taught about the evils of enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native Americans, eugenics, and more, while neglecting the Western Canon. He had been accepted at Harvard, but first found his way to Roarke, a school in rural New Hampshire. Unmentioned but unmissable is the connection of the school’s name to the character in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Much later Harrison becomes a MAGA guy.
The other two, Sally and Lewyn, attended Cornell and though their dorms were next to each other, they never acknowledged each other, and—here’s one of those coincidences—they loved and lied to the same woman. In a move that endeared this book to me, the author mentions the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca that I know through Molly Katzen’s cookbooks.
One exchange I want to remember is this one between our narrator, “the latecomer,” and her high school counselor:
“Well, do you want to stay East? I went on a tour of small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest last summer. I am completely in love with Grinnell.”
“Oh?” I said. “I’ve never heard of it. Where is it?”
I just looked at her. I was lifelong New Yorker. I didn’t know from Iowa.
Another musing from “the Latecomer” caught my attention. “I’d always found, when I ran, that my thoughts got really still, which is a highly desirable state for me, and which desisted the moment I stopped running. Unfortunately, I wasn’t especially fast, and there seemed to be nothing my coach could demand or suggest that made me any faster.”
At some point this book took me that way. It was time for me to stop reading and I couldn’t. It captured me. And though the resolutions that took place were not revelatory or surprising, they were satisfying. I love this book and look forward to reading her other books.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Latecomer, Celadon Books, 2022, 429 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.