This is a literary family saga about the New York Oppenheimers. Salo and Johanna Oppenheimer go through fertility treatments and end up with IVF triplets, born in the era when everyone still said test-tube baby. Johanna is thrilled to finally have the family she's imagined for years, and Salo is vaguely pleased that Johanna seems to be happy. The triplets, though, feel no special affection for each other or even any normal sibling bonds. Instead, the three are all determined to ignore each other and to share almost nothing with their siblings.
Sally, Harrison and Lewyn are fully developed characters, shaped in different ways by the same experiences. They aren't always completely sympathetic, but then, who is? It's a real challenge in fiction to have two full characters who are deeply at odds, without having a right or a wrong side, and here we have three triplets who really only share one thing -- the desire to be free of the other two.
Then, when the triplets are nearing college, the prospect of an empty house leads Johanna to use the final embryo with a surrogate, and so the latecomer, Phoebe, is born almost a generation after her triplet siblings. IVF plays a huge role in the Oppenheimer story, twisting the family relationships. Phoebe is genetically Johanna and Salo's, but chosen and raised almost exclusively by Johanna. All four embryos are the same age, but the siblings aren't. At the beginning, The Latecomer seems to be written in first person plural, with descriptions of our mother and our home, and never any I or my. It was starting to feel a little MFA-experiment to me, but the book is actually narrated by a sort of omniscient Phoebe, beginning decades before her birth.
The story builds very slowly, but my love for the author's previous books, and for family sagas in general, kept me reading scenes about Salo looking at paintings and having intense, unexpressed feelings about art. If you're expecting the tension and twists of The Plot (and parts of Admission, too), you won't find it here. The Latecomer is in many ways a story about characters failing to communicate, and that means there's a lot unsaid in the narrative, lots of scenes of people failing to connect or even really interact. For every slow description of a neighborhood, a house, a painting, or something like that, there are later references that bring a payoff. In this author's previous novels, there was a similar exploration of long-buried secrets. Here, as the narrative took us through the Oppenheimers' past and into their individual personalities, the story is full of secrets and misunderstandings. I was very interested in discovering the story, but I didn't feel like there was a mystery to be excavated, because basically no one in the family cared much about the family. Phoebe arrives in a family where the whole family all kinda disliked each other, and only Johanna was even a little bit sad about that.
I enjoyed reading this book a great deal, and it has the same kind of witty, snarky descriptions of New York life and institutions that I found in parts of The Plot, but the The Latecomer is much more of an emotional exploration than a page-turner.
The Latecomer is by Jean Hanff Korelitz and will be released by Celadon Books on May 31, 2022. I received a review copy of this book to review, all opinions are my own, as always This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission at no additional cost to you, if you purchase a book I've recommended here on my book blog.