The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Genres: Childhood, Fiction, Literary
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I believe now that certain events are inevitable. Not in a fateful way, for I have never had faith in anything but myself, but in the way of human nature.
It seems as if there’s a trend in winter fiction about a parent dying, an absentee parent, and a determined oldest daughter raising their siblings. I noticed it first in Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. Now, in Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics, Ellis Avery dies unexpectedly leaving behind his wife, Noni, and four children under the age of twelve: Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona. He also leaves a mountain of debt and as a stay-at-home mother in 1981 Noni has no way to support the family. She sells their house, moves them into a smaller, shabbier place and immediately goes into the bedroom, where she largely stays for most of the next three years. This parentless time is the blueprint for their adult lives and from it Conklin sends the four siblings into lives that are both unexpected and predictable.
Looking back, as a very old woman Fiona recalls
“And then there was the Pause. Everything started there. Our mother didn’t mean for it to happen, she didn’t, but this is a story about the failures of love, and the Pause was the first.”
The Pause is how the children refer to the time they were left on their own, being raised by 11-year-old Renee. The reality is not idyllic, nor does Conklin paint it that way, but in writing about summers spent at a pond they discover she composes a hauntingly beautiful melody of childhood. Even a childhood that was shaped by a mother so mired in grief she was incapacitated and largely absent. There is Joe, the protector, with an athletic gift that sets him apart; Renee, the fixer, whose interest in how and why things work steers her towards medicine; Caroline, who withdrew into books and then sought stability and security by marrying young; and finally, Fiona, the watcher, who went on to use her gift with words to become a famous poet. Each indelibly shaped by a time that was magical and damaging.
It’s as The Last Romantics passes out of childhood into adulthood that the novel stumbles, mostly because of Joe. He goes from being a talented athlete and a caring person to being a superficial boy-man getting by on his looks. I realize it goes back to the loss of his father, but I could not reconcile the two, so his section of the novel dragged. I realize the early death of his father damaged him, but he so completely squandered his athletic gift and became a caricature. This was compounded by the fact that his role in the novel gains outsized proportion to the lives of his sisters as the novel progresses. There are events in the novel’s second half that felt outlandish and left me disappointed.
In The Last Romantics each character is rendered with care and fleshed out, with the smallest of details bringing them to rich, full life. In the same way, Conklin vividly summarizes the human condition
It is about the negotiations we undertake with ourselves in the name of love. Every day we struggle to decide what to give away and what to keep, but every day we make that calculation and we live with the results.
There are parts of the plot in The Last Romantics that were problematic for me, but through it all prose like this kept me attached to the page.