Family Matters in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s New Novel – Publishers Weekly

It took a short but phenomenally productive detour—writing a different book in a whirlwind four months during the pandemic—for Jean Hanff Korelitz to realize what wasn’t working in her forthcoming novel, The Latecomer (Celadon, May).

When Korelitz had met with her editor, Celadon’s Deb Futter, to talk about the structural difficulties she was having with The Latecomer, she got some unexpected, if invaluable, advice. Futter told Korelitz to focus on a new book instead.

“What she said to me,” Korelitz recalls, “was, ‘Put down this book. Just put it down—because you need some distance from it. And write this other thing.’ ”

“This other thing” was a book Korelitz, 60, pitched on the spot in the meeting—a twisty tale of a writing teacher who steals a story idea from a former student. That book, The Plot, was published last year, to much acclaim.

Touted by Stephen King as “one of the best novels I’ve ever read about writers and writing,” The Plot, which has been Korelitz’s most successful novel to date, changed her writing life. Yes, she’s had success and is no stranger to Hollywood—her novels You Should Have Known and Admission have both been adapted to the screen (the former as the HBO series The Undoing, the latter as the same-titled 2003 film)—but The Plot put her on the literary map in a new way. (And it’s been optioned by Hulu for series adaptation, with Korelitz attached as a writer.) The Plot also helped her get to The Latecomer.

The Latecomer is a character-driven story—a gripping doorstopper that you read in the bathtub until the water is cold. In writing it, Korelitz was after the immersive pleasure she had when she first encountered John Irving’s The World According to Garp in the 1970s. “Everybody was reading Garp,” she explains. “And we were all having this incredibly satisfying, thrilling reading experience.”

The Latecomer is about a deeply flawed American family. It centers on the Oppenheimer clan: Salo, the wealthy patriarch who prizes his art collection over all else; his wife Johanna, whose dream was always to become a mother; and their triplets, Sally, Harrison, and Lewyn, born through IVF. It’s also the story of Phoebe, the fourth child, who is born via a surrogate when Johanna is 48 and her other children are heading off to college.

In the novel, Korelitz explores the fissures between the family members—especially the triplets. Each child is adrift, searching for their purpose: Harrison is a pompous intellectual who goes to a school called Roarke (the name a reference to the character Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead); Sally believes she has discovered her true calling when she meets an antiques picker; and Lewyn finds solace in Mormonism.

Speaking over Zoom from the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband, the poet Paul Muldoon, Korelitz explains that she found inspiration for the novel in her own life. She owns some posters and a framed letter by the outsider artist Achilles G. Rizzoli, whose art plays a role in the novel. The Mormonism thread is related to Korelitz’s fascination with the religion, as an atheist who has attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant (an annual event mounted by the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Palmyra, N.Y.) five times. And Harrison’s dedication to the canon aligns with Korelitz’s greatest regret when it comes to her education: that she never learned Latin.

Korelitz’s children, now grown, have followed their parents into the arts: her daughter is a songwriter and her son works in musical theater. It’s something she appreciates.

“One day when I was upstairs writing The Plot and Paul was downstairs working on a poem,” she says, “both of our kids sort of checked in and said, ‘Oh, I wrote something today, and I’m really happy with it.’ And I just thought, Oh, my God, I’m so lucky. You know, I’m so lucky.”

Korelitz’s first novel is a legal thriller, but she says she didn’t want to keep writing the same character. “Ever since then, I’ve kind of gone back and forth over this net of plot versus literary, sometimes landing more on one side, sometimes landing on the other side. I just hope that readers will allow themselves to enter this world, with no bodies on the floor and no smoking guns, and see that there are other crimes, other plot twists, and other satisfactions.”

It’s not quite true, though, that there are no bodies on the floor in The Latecomer. We learn in the opening chapter that as a teenager, Salo was involved in a fatal car crash, and the weight hangs over him. This event informs much of his life as he grows older and becomes a husband and father, and he deals with the guilt in several ways, including collecting expensive art. (Korelitz says she turned to her friend Steve Martin for guidance on the collection: “He has an amazing art collection. He thinks about art all the time. And he has a very powerful grasp of movements and phases and themes.”)

Salo owns several of Rizzoli’s works, which take on special significance for him because of what they mean to a woman he falls in love with. But he discovers that surrounding himself with art doesn’t alleviate his pain.

Korelitz says some people have told her they don’t want to read about the rich anymore. “But there are always things that we can learn from studying them,” she adds. “Most of us don’t have those lives and are always curious to know how other people are living. It’s such a minefield right now—what we’re allowed to write. And I feel like to capitulate to any of this is just such a dangerous, slippery slope. I would never tell anybody what they’re allowed to write. And I really hope nobody ever tells me what I’m allowed to write.”

She likes to think about how people use and misuse their wealth. “I’m also interested in watching people bungle their opportunities,” she says.

Privilege is at the heart of this story, along with numerous other subjects such as religion, education, hoarding, right wing politics, reproductive technology, and infidelity—but it takes the latecomer herself, the fourth child, to connect all of the dots.

“You’d think somebody who’s written a whole book called The Plot would be a plotter, but I’m not,” Korelitz says. What was important to her was figuring out who her characters were. “I think maybe that’s why I went so wrong with this book, initially: I really didn’t know them. And it took a long time to know them, because some of them are pretty deceitful and withholding people.”

Michele Filgate is the editor of the anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About and a writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.

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