The Last Romantics: A Novel
- By Tara Conklin
- William Morrow
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Sarah Shoemaker
- March 22, 2019
Four children learn to care for each other — and grow up — after a shocking death transforms their family.
In a small, middle-class town in Connecticut, a dentist falls to the floor of his office with a fatal heart attack. He is 34 years old, the husband of Antonia and the father of four young children.
Antonia, called Noni, has never held a full-time job and has no idea how she will care for the children without a husband to support them. Indeed, within a few months, still stunned into depression, Noni retreats to her bedroom and remains there for the next three years, leaving the kids to fend for themselves, becoming, as the youngest, Fiona, says later, “almost feral.”
The story zooms in on the children as they navigate grief and transition, and reveals, over time, how this period becomes a touchstone for them and sets the pattern for the rest of their lives.
Renee, 11, takes charge, making sure her younger siblings are adequately (although sometimes barely) fed and dressed. Caroline is 8, an emotional and easily distracted child bedeviled by nightmares. Joe, 7, attempts to take on the mantle of “man of the house,” particularly tending to Fiona who, at 4, is a dreamy child and already an avid reader who loves losing herself in books.
Fiona eventually becomes a poet, and it is she who narrates this wise and heartbreaking story, a story which, Fiona tells us early on, is “about the failures of love,” commenting that “the ways in which love might disappear first became known to us [when we] were too young…for that kind of wisdom.”
When Noni finally comes out of what her children later call “the Pause,” she returns with a vengeance, determined her daughters will never be housewives and mothers completely dependent upon their husbands.
She spends evening meals lecturing them on the importance of independence and the necessity of higher education, eschewing the denigrating roles she herself once played in a marriage. Joe sits quietly during these diatribes, causing readers to wonder what he is thinking and how these thoughts will play out in his life. Despite his mother’s focus on the girls, Joe, a gifted athlete, has the complete support of his family when it comes to sports, as his mother and three sisters attend his every game.
As this tightly woven and immersive saga unfurls, spanning the lives of the siblings, we witness them grow into their adult selves and find their separate ways, coming together and moving apart — sometimes for years — like chords in a symphony.
Renee, with little thought of marrying, becomes a respected physician. Caroline, despite her mother’s best efforts, wants nothing more than a husband and children. Fiona seems to be treading water, taking a job with a nonprofit that barely supports her while she writes poetry and blogs about her sexual experiences.
Joe goes from baseball star with a full ride at a prestigious college, to high-flying player in the investing world, to losing everything. His unraveling first occurs “surrounded by all those who loved him and no one, not one of us, able to help.”
Told beautifully and with wisdom and heart by Tara Conklin, The Last Romantics pulls the reader into these lives, treating each character with honesty and, yes, love. We see them at their best and at their worst, tenderly caring for each other at one time and callously betraying each other at another.
In the end, Fiona rethinks her idea of love: “I was wrong to tell you that this is a story about the failures of love. No, it is about real love, true love. Imperfect, wretched, weak love. No fairy tales, no poetry. 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.”
Sarah Shoemaker is a former librarian and the author of four novels, the most recent of which is Mr. Rochester.