THE LAST ROMANTICS, by Tara Conklin. William Morrow, 354 pp., $26.99.
Tara Conklin’s “The Last Romantics” — the tale of a group of intertwined siblings making their separate ways through the decades yet bound by an invisible, twisting cord — beautifully understands its characters.
Like Chloe Benjamin’s “The Immortalists,” Angela Flournoy’s “The Turner House” and Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth,” “The Last Romantics” irresistibly pulls readers into the life of a family. Conklin begins, audaciously, in the year 2079, as 102-year-old poet Fiona Skinner is making a rare public appearance to discuss her distinguished body of work. A young woman steps to the microphone and asks a question, about a name in one of the poems. Fiona pauses, and begins to tell a story. “Once upon a time…there was a father and a mother and four children, three girls and one boy.”
Conklin is a former lawyer who lives in Seattle and previously wrote the bestseller “The House Girl”; like her creation Fiona, she’s an accomplished storyteller. “The Last Romantics,” which takes its name from a blog that the young Fiona writes about her sexual escapades, is one of those books that agreeably floats between characters and time periods, following its own elegant trail. Though Fiona, the youngest of the four siblings, is its center, we also enter the perspectives of other characters: the practical oldest sister Renee, who takes care of everyone as a child and as an adult; Joe, the only brother, a golden boy who struggles with adulthood; middle sister Caroline, who quickly disappears into young love and motherhood; Luna, a bartender who meets Joe and sees something beautiful in his fog.
“The Last Romantics” is shadowed with loss: the Skinner siblings’ father, who dies suddenly at 34 in the first line of Chapter 1. Fiona barely remembers him, but she and her siblings grow up haunted by how their mother, Noni, checked out of their lives for a couple of years (the children called it “the Pause”), unable to cope in her grief. Tethered to each other yet floating alone through the years, the four siblings all seem to be looking for something they can’t quite find. And there’s another tragedy, one which Conklin takes her time revealing, that changes them all again. It’s a book about leavings, and about how things shift to fill an empty space — or don’t.
And it’s a book that beautifully understands its characters. Consider Fiona’s appraisal of young Joe — a handsome, smiling boy who “said everything that everyone wanted to hear, and yet it seemed that his manner began outside himself, externally, with the wishes of others who wanted something from him.” The adult Caroline groups her mother with her own three children, “the four of them crammed into a sack that Caroline slung over her shoulder and carried around. It was heavy, but there was no safe place to put it down.”
In its elegiac final chapter, “The Last Romantics” leaves its characters — and its dazzled readers — surrounded by a halo of love.