Most children get to know their siblings as playmates in a protected world under watchful adult eyes. It is the sudden disappearance of this supervision that defines the characters in Tara Conklin’s second novel, “The Last Romantics.”
An elegantly penned family saga that stretches for nearly a century, the book opens in the year 2079. Fiona Skinner, the narrator, is a famous poet, aged 102, and is in the midst of her first public appearance in 25 years. The world outside the auditorium is plagued by environmental decline, but inside the audience is focused on her iconic work, “The Love Poem,” the piece that brought her critical acclaim when she was still in her 20s. Luna, a young woman who shares the name of the poem’s protagonist, is firing questions, insistent on learning more about her mysterious namesake.
The request prompts Fiona to tell her family’s story, one that she declares is “about the failures of love.”
In 1981, a solidly middle-class Connecticut family suddenly loses its bearing. Ellis Skinner, a successful dentist, dies of a heart attack, leaving his children Fiona, Joe, Caroline and Renee, ranging in age from 4 to 11, brokenhearted and rudderless. Their homemaker mother Noni, widowed at 31, sells their stately yellow house, moves the family into a soulless gray rectangle in the wrong part of town, and breaks down in crippling depression. She tucks herself away in her bedroom, becomes more ghost than parent, and as a result, Fiona explains, the children “went feral.”
During those two wild years, forever known as “the Pause,” Renee is forced to shelve her youth and assume a mother-figure role; nervous Caroline is plagued by nightmares and yearns for stability; Joe morphs his pre-pubescent self into the man of the house, fiercely protective of his sisters; and creative Fiona, well watched over by the three, remains a child and embraces the Pause, reveling in the way their circumstances stitch them together. This period of “neglect and adventure” will forever mark the siblings in different ways.
When their mother finally emerges from her haze, she dabs on lipstick, finds work as a receptionist and instead of being wrapped in remorse, becomes an ardent feminist, warning her daughters to never rely on a man. But after a two-year absence, her control over her children has been severed for good. The one thing she is determined to hold on to, and what the girls are already certain of, is Joe’s success. The only boy, he is put on a pedestal — and he makes a case for belonging there. He, the preternaturally athletically gifted, the baseball star unrivaled in town, who showed up to practice in a clean white uniform, even during the Pause. He, who made being a Skinner something to be proud of. He, who with a simple comment of praise could make Fiona feel her heart spreading “like a starfish, like a many-fingered creature that had finally found its treasure.” She and her sisters will not give up that treasure easily, and despite their lives growing more disparate as the decades go on, their relationships morphing from intense to surprisingly distant, the care and preservation of Joe remains of utmost importance, even when the sisters eclipse his success.
Caroline marries young, to a boy that burrowed into her life during her tumultuous childhood, and becomes a mother, happily rebelling against her own mother’s advice. Renee never strays from her path of responsibility, putting herself through medical school and working as a successful transplant surgeon. Only Fiona allows herself to float through the world. She finds a good enough job at an environmental nonprofit and spends her free time partaking in the early days of blogging. A writer since childhood, she has a hit with the blog “the Last Romantic,” a chronicle of her sexual exploits, where she lists the men she beds by number and critiques their performance in detail. “How a person behaved on a one-night stand spoke volumes,” she notes as she develops a following. But Joe can’t keep up with the dizzying pace of his sisters. With his bat retired, he finds himself trying to make it in the New York finance world, which he navigates in a haze of drugs and alcohol.
His fall from grace brings him to Luna Hernandez, the inspiration for “The Love Poem.” For Joe, she represents romantic love in its most luscious, electrifying form, and for his family, she is something much darker.
It is the strength and fragility of the siblings’ bond, the evolving nature of love that is at the core of Conklin’s novel. And Fiona, with her uncommon insights, her lyricism and steady pacing, feels like the perfect narrator. Gracefully rendered, “The Last Romantics” focuses on the familiar theme of family with great originality.