When college student Salo Oppenheimer’s Jeep tumbles off a road near campus, two of the vehicle’s passengers—Salo’s girlfriend and a close friend—are killed on impact. A third, the friend’s date, is badly injured and transfers colleges. While Salo’s physical injuries are barely noticeable, his emotional scars will shape the rest of his life.
Despite Salo’s skepticism about his ability (or even if he deserves) to be happy, he marries and fathers triplets. His wife, Johanna, wants children more than anything, so she endures fertility procedures to conceive Harrison, Lewyn and Sally. But the triplets don’t fill the emotional vacancies created by her husband, and when the children leave for college, Johanna tells Salo she’s going to return to the couple’s remaining blastocyst. Seventeen years after their births, the Oppenheimer siblings reluctantly welcome a fourth.
In The Latecomer, Jean Hanff Korelitz (The Plot) guides readers through the Oppenheimers’ tumultuous—and often emotionally impoverished—family history. The novel sprawls across 45 years and more than 400 pages, offering each segment of the family ample time to tell their stories: the parents, the triplets and the latecomer herself, Phoebe.
Korelitz embeds a vast range of details within the tale, from the procedures necessary for the children’s births to the art collection that pulls Salo away from his family, from the family’s Jewish history to a character’s fascination with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. An extensive network of subplots helps to define the characters’ relationships to one another, though all this groundwork-laying can feel frustrating; the promised title character, whose birth is an intrusion to her siblings’ lives, isn’t mentioned until more than 100 pages in and doesn’t step to center stage until the novel’s final third. But this delay allows Korelitz to develop both the rich plot and the nuanced characters who populate it.
Ultimately, Phoebe’s late arrival encourages the rest of the Oppenheimers to realize how their father’s life-changing car crash altered all of their lives. The Latecomer’s blending of family history and research explores how generational trauma can change everything, even for those who don’t know about the incident at its center.