The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz book review

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The Oppenheimer triplets were conceived in a petri dish, but the real miracle of their creation took place in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s fertile imagination. These three spoiled scions of a wealthy Brooklyn family are the subject of her sharp new comic novel, “The Latecomer.”

Although it’s set around the end of the 20th century, the story luxuriates in the flourishes of an earlier era, including uncanny coincidences, hidden identities and chapter headings in which the author foreshadows what is about to unfold. Indeed, like the latter-day Edith Wharton, Korelitz simultaneously mocks and embraces these upper-class combatants. 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 strong-armed through a college seminar on, say, pharmaceuticals or bird conservation. (Like her previous novel “The Plot,” “The Latecomer” is already set for a TV series adaptation.)

In the early chapters, Korelitz carefully lays the foundation of a storied Jewish family that can trace its roots — and its misfortunes — back to Joseph Suss Oppenheimer in the 18th-century court of Stuttgart. But the moment the Oppenheimer triplets emerge into the world with the help of IVF, they’re cradled in deception and obfuscation that will spark explosions throughout their lives. As a young man, their father killed two friends in a driving accident. He never mentions that catastrophe, although it essentially cauterized his heart from him, which now has room only for modern art. Their mother, meanwhile, is so determined to preserve a lovely tableaux of happiness that she can never see her children in action.

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Although raised together with every advantage money can buy, the triplets never develop even the most basic habits of sibling comradery. They sound almost like characters in a fairy tale when the narrator claims, “The faintest hint of affection, the palest expression of warmth, was enough to make each Oppenheimer triplet recoil.” Harrison, Lewyn and Sally — “the smart one,” “the weird one” and “the girl” — remain inert elements in a family compound that never coheres. The narrator, whose hidden identity adds a touch of “Gossip Girl” intrigue, moves freely across the years, in and out of the triplets’ minds: “So powerful was the mutual aversion, and so ironic, given the triplets had never actually been apart, that you might even have said it was the single thing the triplets actually did share.”

“The Latecomer” casts a witty eye on a wide spectrum of American life, but when Harrison, Lewyn and Sally become teenagers, Korelitz turns her satiric vision to the excesses of liberal education with particularly singing 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 touchy-feely ideology is enforced with a death grip throughout the curriculum. “Every student,” the narrator writes, “marched in lockstep to his or her dela mandated different drummer.” While European history is reserved for a senior elective, all the grades concentrate on the rights of women and LGBTQ people. It’s a terrible fit for Harrison, who’s already an archconservative by second grade and believes “he was not just smarter than his siblings (a low bar, in his opinion) but smarter than his classmates, his teachers, and the head of school.”

Although bound for Harvard like a salmon to its birthplace, Harrison meets an iconoclastic professor who convinces him he’s too special for the halls of Cambridge. He should instead join the little cadre of Spartan intellectuals at Roarke (a wonderful parody of Deep Springs College). There, while reading Latin and cleaning out the chicken coop, Harrison finally finds someone he can truly respect: a fellow student named Eli Absalom Stone.

In such moments — and there are many in “The Latecomer” — Korelitz’s skill as the ringmaster of this vast collection of episodes feels particularly dazzling. Eli Absalom Stone sounds something like an African American version of Jedediah Purdy, that home-schooled West Virginian who, in 1999 at the age of 24, published a much-heralded work of cultural criticism titled “For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today.” But Korelitz has made her young autodidact far more conflicted. As a Black man, Stone becomes a right-wing media celebrity, richly rewarded for inhabiting “that vile gray zone between fiscal conservative and Tiki Torchbearer.” Harrison hitches his bespoke wagon to that star, and the resulting scandal shows how deftly Korelitz moves as a satirist, feinting in one direction and then delivering a knockout blow in the other.

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

There’s a jigsaw-puzzle thrill to Korelitz’s family epic — the way it feels like a thousand scrambled, randomly shaped events until you’ve got the edges in place, and then the picture begins to resolve with accelerating inevitability and surprise. Part farce, part revenge fantasy, the climactic scene at a triple birthday party at the Oppenheimers’ “cottage” on Martha’s Vineyard is one of the most hilarious and horrible calamities I’ve ever found in a novel.

Korelitz is not so sentimental as to finally draw the Oppenheimer triplets together in a hug, but she knows how to adopt the old conventions of romantic comedy and domestic drama to her thoroughly modern ends. By the time we’re done with these siblings, their lives have been turned inside out, and all their stored-up junk and secret treasures have been sorted, culled and curated for this immensely enjoyable sojourn with a truly memorable family.

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

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