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In addition to The Dreamers, Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics was one of my most anticipated books of 2019. Comparisons to books I loved by Ann Patchett and Meg Wolitzer caught my eye, and the promise of a family drama told over decades made this book a must read. And I’m pleased to report that The Last Romantics lived up to my high hopes.
Much of The Last Romantics hinges on the moments that define four siblings in childhood. Together, Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona have the Pause. Following their father’s early death, their mother’s years-long retreat defined their relationships, cementing a lifelong closeness, sense of responsibility, and knowing of one another. But it’s the unknown traumas and struggles that sends each on their own paths into adulthood, paths that the others don’t understand–though they feel their connections should make understanding a given.
That understanding and their devotion to one another is tested by another trauma, causing each them to reevaluate what they know and who they are. Told over decades, The Last Romantics is a beautifully rendered portrait of complicated familial relationships, examining the nature of love, commitment, and the strength of those bonds even as what we know changes.
- Family drama told over the decades
- Sibling relationships defined by a childhood event
- Comparisons to Commonwealth by Ann Patchett and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, both books I loved
The Defining Moments
Much of The Last Romantics hinges on the moments that define the siblings in childhood. Together, they have the Pause. Their mother’s retreat from their lives defined their relationships, cementing a lifelong closeness and sense of responsibility for one another. The impact of the Pause, and of several other events that happen to individual siblings, reverberates through their lives. Conklin sensitively considers their different perspectives on that time, as well as their adult understandings of childhood events.
The Peeks into Each Sibling’s Life
The book is narrated by Fiona, the youngest of the four children and in many ways, the one least aware of the struggles of her siblings. Some chapters, however, follow the other siblings, both in their reflections on the past and in their current lives. While this shift is unusual in a book with a first-person narrative, I appreciated the clarity provided by those chapters.
What was most interesting about the chapters that shift away from Fiona was how they brought each sibling into sharper relief for the reader, but not for Fiona. Her young age at the time of the Pause meant that she missed many of the nuances of her family’s emotions, and it was difficult for her to make sense of them even as an adult. While she, in many ways, looks back on that time fondly, her siblings feel differently. This disparity leaves her a bit adrift and aimless.
As a child, Fiona writes lists of words obsessively, her first attempts to capture the perplexing swirl of emotions around her. As an adult, she tries to make sense of her own observations of people through her blog, The Last Romantic, in which she catalogues all of the men she sleeps with. It’s a way of learning to trust her own observations and understandings of the stories she creates about her interactions with people.
What Didn’t Work
The Future in Peril
The book is framed as a story being told by a 102-year-old Fiona to an audience that has gathered to hear her speak. She is a famous poet and it is to be her final appearance. The chapters returning to this speech are few, and peppered throughout them are references to environmental disasters that are pushing the country toward collapse. Other than passing mentions to Fiona’s job (which was related to climate change), this dystopic future didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the family-focused story.
I remember these details exactly. Some days continue to exist year after year, decade after decade, as though they are happening inside you concurrent with the present. A persistent, simultaneous life. One that you consider and wish more than anything that you could change.
It was as though the care we had shown each other as children had been revealed as faulty, flawed, riddled with holes. Now we avoided any interaction that reminded us of what we once had assumed ourselves to be. I continued to search for Luna. In a way we all did. Even Renee. We searched for Luna as we searched for ourselves, the people we were forced to become.
The Last Romantics is an absorbing, nuanced look at four devoted and complicated siblings whose paths are defined by a childhood event that affects each of them very differently. Despite one element of the story that felt out of place, The Last Romantics is my first 5-star read of 2019. Buy it on Amazon.
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