Friday, February 15, 2019

The Last Romantics

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
HarperCollins: 2/5/19
Advanced Reading Copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062358202

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin is a very highly recommended family drama.
Opening in 2079, Fiona Skinner is a 102-year-old poet who, during a rare public appearance, meets a young woman whose parents named her "Luna" after a woman mentioned in Fiona's world-famous work, "The Love Poem," written 75 years earlier. This Luna wants to know the story behind the real Luna, from the poem. This request requires a long story from Fiona, which makes up the bulk of the novel.

1981 marks the beginning of "the Pause" for the Skinner siblings. This is the year their father suddenly dies, leaving their mother, Noni, a young widow with four children. They move out of their beloved yellow house into a smaller, more modest home and Noni falls into a paralyzing depression that lasts three years. At the beginning of the Pause, the children were 4-year-old Fiona, 7-year-old Joe, 8-year-old Caroline, and 11-year-old Renee. While Noni stays in her bedroom for days at a time, the Skinner children must fend for themselves, which creates a powerful bond between them. Noni eventually reclaims her parental responsibility, but the Pause deeply impacted the whole family with reverberations into adulthood. Noni comes out of it as a much more militant woman, wary of men and any dependence upon them.

Fiona serves as the omniscient narrator for the story of her family and how their traumatic childhood continued to be the root of issues which followed them into adulthood. The sibling most damaged by the Pause was Joe, but all of them suffer from consequences and approach adulthood quite differently. Renee is driven and focused as she pursues a medical career. Caroline marries early and is devoted to her professor husband and their children without considering her own desires. Fiona has a mindless job at a nonprofit called ClimateSenseNow! while secretly writing a blog detailing her sexual encounters. Joe has problems with addiction that are basically ignored or quietly handled by the family.

The writing is exceptional and the compelling story of the Skinner family will hold your attention throughout the novel. The early trauma from the Pause and the on-going family saga is gripping enough without framing the engrossing parts of the story with hints of a climate changed future. Actually, the chapters set in 2079 serve only as a distraction from the real story. All the oblique references to a dystopian future and climate change are never adequately addressed. These chapters become a structural problem that only serves to detract from the real story. It would have behooved Conklin to find a better venue for Fiona to relate the story of her family. The Last Romantics held my attention, in spite of the structural problems of looking back from the future to tell the story. I enjoyed the narrative immensely, but would go to 4.5 on a rating based on the 2079 chapters framing the real story.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

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