Review of The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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The Oppenheimer triplets were conceived in a Petri dish, but the real miracle of their creation took place in the fertile imagination of Jean Hanff Korelitz. These three spoiled descendants of a wealthy Brooklyn family are the subject of his sharp new comedy novel, “The Latecomer.”

Although set towards the end of the 20th century, the story flourishes in the flourishes of an earlier era, including bizarre coincidences, hidden identities, and chapter headings in which the author foreshadows what is about to unfold. Indeed, like a latter-day Edith Wharton, Korelitz simultaneously mocks and embraces these upper-class fighters. Other readers will hear in this vivisection of a dysfunctional family a Franzenesque attention to the great forces pulsing through American culture. But Korelitz writes with such a light touch that one doesn’t feel weaponized through a college seminar on, say, pharmaceuticals or bird conservation. (Like his previous novel “The Plot,” “The Latecomer” is already set for a television series adaptation.)

In the early chapters, Korelitz carefully lays the foundation for a legendary Jewish family that can trace its roots – and misfortunes – back to Joseph Suss Oppenheimer at the court of Stuttgart in the 18th century. But by the time the Oppenheimer triplets emerge into the world with the help of IVF, they are lulled into deception and obfuscation that will set off explosions throughout their lives. As a young man, their father killed two friends in a car accident. He never mentions this disaster, though it essentially cauterized his heart, which now has room only for modern art. Their mother, on the other hand, is so determined to preserve a beautiful picture of happiness that she will never be able to see her children in action.

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Although raised with all the perks money can buy, triplets never develop the most basic habits of brotherly camaraderie. They sound almost like characters in a fairy tale when the narrator asserts, “The slightest hint of affection, the palest expression of warmth, was enough to set every Oppenheimer triplet back off.” Harrison, Lewyn and Sally – “the smart one”, “the weird one” and “the girl” – remain inert elements in a family complex that never coheres. The narrator, whose hidden identity adds a touch of “Gossip Girl” intrigue, moves freely through the years, in and out of the minds of the triplets: “So powerful was the mutual dislike, and so ironic, since the triplets had never been apart, that you could even have said that was the only thing the triplets did to share.”

“The Latecomer” takes a witty look at a wide range of American life, but when Harrison, Lewyn and Sally become teenagers, Korelitz turns his satirical outlook on the excesses of liberal education to particularly searing effect. The triplets attend the exclusive Walden Academy, one of those chronically compromised prep schools designed on the most egalitarian principles for the most aristocratic parents. Walden’s sensitive ideology is applied with deadly grip throughout the program. “Each student,” writes the narrator, “marched to his other appointed drummer.” While European history is reserved for a senior elective, all grades focus on the rights of women and LGBTQ people. It’s a terrible choice for Harrison, who is already a sophomore archconservative and believes “he was not just smarter than his siblings (a low bar, in his opinion) but smarter than his classmates. of class, his teachers and the headmaster of the school.”

Though on his way to Harvard like a salmon back to his hometown, Harrison meets an iconoclastic professor who convinces him he’s too special for the halls of Cambridge. He should instead join Roarke’s small group of Spartan intellectuals (a wonderful parody of Deep Springs College). There, while reading Latin and cleaning the chicken coop, Harrison finally finds someone he can truly respect: a classmate named Eli Absalom Stone.

In such moments – and there are many in “The Latecomer” – Korelitz’s skill as ring master of this vast collection of episodes is particularly dazzling. Eli Absalom Stone sounds like an African-American version of Jedediah Purdy, the home-schooled West Virginian who, in 1999, at the age of 24, published a highly publicized book of cultural criticism called “For Common Things: Irony , trust, and engagement in today’s America. But Korelitz made his young autodidact far more confrontational. As a black man, Stone becomes a right-wing media celebrity, richly rewarded for inhabiting “this vile gray area between fiscal conservatives and the Tiki Torchbearer”. Harrison hitches his bespoke wagon to this star, and the resulting scandal shows just how deftly Korelitz moves as a satirist, feigning in one direction and then delivering a blow of grace in the other.

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She demonstrates the same dexterity in another, equally surprising scenario, involving Lewyn at Cornell University, where, once again, a particular experience resonates with national implications. Although raised in a culturally Jewish household with no particular interest in theology, Lewyn is fascinated by his Mormon roommate. At first, Lewyn’s worldly sophistication seems to mock his new friend’s white bread lifestyle and theatrical spirituality. Indeed, there are plenty of opportunities here for gags reminiscent of the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” but Korelitz has something else in mind. Soon, Lewyn finds himself craving the love and mystery of this local American faith.

There’s a jigsaw puzzle thrill to the family epic of Korelitz – the way it feels like a thousand jumbled, randomly shaped events until you get the edges in place and then the picture starts to blur. resolve with accelerated inevitability and surprise. Part prank, part revenge fantasy, the climactic scene of a triple birthday party at the Oppenheimers’ “cottage” on Martha’s Vineyard is one of the most hilarious and gruesome calamities I’ve ever found in a novel.

Korelitz isn’t sentimental enough to finally bring the Oppenheimer triplets together in an embrace, but she knows how to take the old conventions of romantic comedy and domestic drama to her decidedly modern ends. By the time we are done with these siblings, their lives have been turned upside down, and all of their hidden and secret treasures have been sorted, selected and saved for this extremely enjoyable stay with a truly memorable family.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for the Washington Post.

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