Jean Hanff Korelitz’s “The Latecomer” Is a Social Satire Perfect for Summer

·6 min read
Photo credit: Michael Avedon
Photo credit: Michael Avedon

Triplets, conceived via IVF into a wealthy New York Jewish family, who never grow out of hating each other. A father’s secret, held closely for generations, that permanently poisons the family well. A mother who dives into empty-nest desperation with a too-late-in-life baby, delivered via gestational carrier.

To read The Latecomer is to be treated to a garden of literary delights. Thoroughly modern social satire! Tonally spot-on chapter titles, like “Summer Lovers: In which Sally Oppenheimer discovers her brother’s snakeliness, and contemplates the entire baffling mosh pit of adult life.” Soaring sentences like this one, in which Triplet Harrison describes his life to date. “Eighteen years of being coddled, overscheduled, and overseen, paid attention to in all the worst ways (and none of the ways that mattered), housed and clothed and fed and amused in a manner commensurate with his family’s endemic wealth.”

What’s not to love about Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 11th book? Absolutely nothing.

What do novelists find difficult about writing a novel? Absolutely everything.

The best novelists make it look easy, constructing a compelling plot, and subplots; character development that makes the reader root hard for and/or against the good and/or bad guys; lyrical prose that makes sentences sing; settings that invite the reader into new worlds, or paint new pictures of familiar ones. Plus, social relevance that connects the fiction to reality. Narrative tension to keep those pages turning. Pacing that holds the reader in the palm of the author’s invisible hand. A compelling beginning. A satisfying ending. Oh, and everything in between.

Most novelists get something right. Many get some things right. Very few novelists—Hanff Korelitz among them, as she has proven in her previous 10 books, including the 2021 novel The Plot—weave all these qualities into a welcoming net its readers can fall back into with grateful abandon, trusting the book and its author have the strength of purpose to hold them.

The Latecomer introduces us to the Oppenheimer family before they’ve become one. Salo and Johanna meet as teenagers, at the funeral of a friend who was killed in a car accident. The driver was Salo Oppenheimer.

“Our parents met in central New Jersey, in a conservative synagogue that looked like a brutalist government building somewhere in the Eastern Bloc.”…“Even then, nobody blamed him. Nobody!...It was somehow held by all present in the synagogue…that Salo Oppenheimer’s brand-new Laredo had been traveling at an eminently reasonable speed down a perfectly respectable road when it hit a loose rock and—abruptly, incomprehensibly—flipped. It was as if the hand of God itself had picked up that vehicle and dropped it back to earth.”

State of privilege established, the novel traces the patterning of Salo and Johanna’s relationship as first evidenced during their courtship. “Salo had known it was absurd to be a young man, in the 1970s (when even women were shrugging off old ideas about promiscuity), but he’d felt incapable of crossing that abyss. Johanna took charge of the whole thing, somehow, meaning that he was not required to do anything but be accommodating.”

Johanna’s role thereby becomes more pivotal, and more complex. “From this moment forward it was all going to be about our father, and the great purpose of her life would be to love him enough to relieve him of his great burden, and to free him from that one, terrible shard of time in which he was so unfairly trapped, and to salve at last that wound of his, that one that wouldn’t heal.”

In 1979, now married, the Oppenheimers buy a house on the then-sketchy Brooklyn Esplanade. “She was a girl from suburban New Jersey. As far as she was concerned, Brooklyn was where John Travolta went to the disco…and where gangs on the subway roamed at will.” In an early experiment with IVF, they birth triplets, Harrison, Lewyn, and Sally, who are sent to New York’s finest private schools.

Over the decades, Salo loses interest in family life and throws himself into the modern art world, while Johanna becomes increasingly desperate to coax her mutually antipathetic triplets into providing her the picture-perfect family she wishes for, and pretends to have.

“When Harrison called Lewyn fat and Sally put Harrison’s chess medal (which came not from Walden, where everyone got a medal, but from the Brooklyn Chess League, where you actually had to win in order to get a medal) in the garbage, or Harrison lifted not one finger to help his brother conquer homesickness at summer camp—our mother refused to attach great importance to any of these things, because…she maintained the fragile notion that all three of her children were devoted to one another.”

One of the many delights of The Latecomer is its author’s adroit handling of the era, locations, and demographic in which the novel is set. Clearly, Korelitz has thoughts and feelings, strong ones, about the personal/psychological theme of her story: the ways in which parents are shaped by their own childhood traumas, and necessarily pass them on, despite their massive, often backfiring efforts not to. Korelitz seems equally passionate about the story’s social/political theme: the narcissistic hypocrisies of wealthy New York’s contemporary creative class.

“The Walden School…represented…the bright shining lie of progressive education. At Walden, they’d been taught about the European genocide against Native Americans, about the enslavement of Africans, about eugenics and lynch mobs and the unmitigated evil of the Republican Party, all while fanning the flame of their own goodness.”

The Latecomer is not a plot-driven, action-fueled novel. The story line doesn’t gallop from start to finish; rather, it moves with the stolid intentionality of the hooves of horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping on cobblestones, returning to their feed bags near New York’s Plaza Hotel. The story line of this satiric, incisive, comical, 439-page New York novel hangs on the two tragedies that bookend it: the opening disaster that lays the groundwork for the plot, and the final, shocking yet inevitable tragedy that closes it.

There are many pages in between, but the masterful skills of the author ensure that the reader won’t be waiting impatiently for the next plot point. Rather, the reader is most likely to close the book disappointed that Hanff Korelitz hasn’t yet supplied another 439 pages of laughter, head-slapping, pure delight, and possibly self-recognition to savor.

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