Tara Conklin, New York Times best-selling author of “The House Girl,” returns with her compulsively readable follow-up, “The Last Romantics.”
“The Last Romantics” is a frame tale, and the novel opens in 2079. The narrator, Fiona Skinner, a famous 102-year-old poet, is giving one last lecture about her work. At the end of the event, when audience members are invited to ask questions, a woman asks about Luna, who is mentioned in Fiona’s most famous poem and about whom nothing is known. This question serves as the impetus to leave what seems to be a dystopian future world and focus on Fiona’s past.
Fiona tells the story of her family, starting in her childhood with the death of her father. She explains that, after his death their mother, Noni, went through a period known to them as “the Pause,” during which she stopped mothering the children, and the siblings had to figure things out for themselves. During this period, a complex dynamic emerges. Renee, the eldest, feels that she must support everyone; her sister Caroline suffers from nightmares that no one is able to soothe; Joe, the only brother, is besieged by grief for his lost father but becomes a star in the neighborhood and on the baseball field; and Fiona finds refuge in words. The novel follows each of the siblings as they age, but it soon becomes clear that something very tragic has happened to Joe, and a girl called Luna was somehow involved.
Fans of “The Immortalists,” another novel about sibling dynamics, will find much to appreciate here. Though her novel is laced with a beautiful sense of nostalgia, Conklin also uses the text as a space to comment on the relationship between feminine agency and erotic desire.
As with many frame tales, I found I was as curious about the world of Fiona’s present as I was about her past, and I was a little frustrated with the lack of development here. There are also frequent time hops in this novel, and some may find the pacing inconsistent, feeling that Conklin lingers in some periods but speeds through others.
Still, readers will find themselves incredibly invested in “The Last Romantics,” wishing the very best for all of Conklin’s beautifully drawn characters and wanting to remain with them a little longer.