Dive into the intricate world of the Oppenheimer family, crafted by the brilliant mind of Jean Hanff Korelitz in her latest masterpiece, The Latecomer.
This captivating literary novel takes us on a compelling journey with three siblings yearning to break free from each other’s grasp, until a shocking arrival disrupts their fragile dynamics.
From the somber origins of their parents’ fateful meeting to the emergence of triplets amidst the dawn of IVF technology, Korelitz’s storytelling prowess skillfully unravels themes of grief, privilege, and the complexities of family bonds.
In this discussion guide, we’ll have a look at some book club questions for The Latecomer and why it’s a must-read for anyone looking for a thought-provoking exploration of guilt, tradition, and the unexpected role played by the enigmatic latecomer in this intricately woven tale.
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The Latecomer Book Club Questions
- The cover of The Latecomer consists of images of four test tubes symbolizing the in-vitro origins of the Oppenheimer triplets. They represent the scientific and technological advancements that allowed their conception outside the natural process of reproduction.
Do you think the presence of test tubes suggests themes of artificiality, control, and the complex consequences of scientific interventions in human life? What’s your opinion on this matter?
- Korelitz explores the Oppenheimer family’s Jewish American success story by portraying their assimilation into American society while maintaining their Jewish identity. The family’s achievements, such as living in an affluent neighborhood and owning a successful investment firm, reflect their upward social mobility and prevalence of class elegance. The mention of the Brooklyn Esplanade and spending their summer on Martha’s Vineyard highlights their privileged lifestyle and cultural assimilation.
Why do you think affluence was brought forward in the novel? Also, what’s your take on the way having a privileged background contributed to the Oppenheimer family upholding their Jewish identity?
- I personally think that the novel satirizes contemporary New York City by portraying the Oppenheimers as an exclusive social group. The reference to Edith Wharton and the comparison of the Oppenheimers’ social world to Wharton’s novels suggest a critique of the upper class and the pursuit of social status. The mention of the fictional Walden School of Brooklyn Heights and its socialist ethos satirizes the contradictions and hypocrisies of elite education.
Do you agree? If yes, do you think there are any other moments of satire in the novel?
- Family conflicts within the Oppenheimer family include the tensions between Salo and Joanna, as well as the siblings’ rivalry and estrangement from one another. An extramarital affair, a tragic accident, a secret bequest, and a mysterious letter further add fuel to the fire.
Discuss how themes of betrayal and loyalty are embedded in this portrayal of family conflicts, as mentioned in the novel.
- In The Latecomer, the struggles of sibling rivalry and infidelity are classic themes that explore universal human experiences, while the conception of the triplets in a lab and their individuality assertion reflect modern advancements in reproductive technologies and individual autonomy.
Can you guess the third major plot point/theme in the novel?
- Phoebe is portrayed as an engaging and self-aware young woman who provides perspective and insight into the Oppenheimer family dynamics. She grows up with a different perspective and has the ability to decode and partially disarm her family’s conflicts.
Discuss Phoebe’s evolution from an observer to an active participant in the novel. Also, do you think her taking on roles such as an interventionist, girl detective, pardoner, and matchmaker brings a sense of agency and resolution to the narrative?
- While “she” is portrayed as tenderhearted and self-sacrificing, her perspective and motivations become less accessible to the reader as the story progresses. This lack of development limits the understanding of her pain and idealism, leaving a desire for more depth in her character.
Can you guess which character I am talking about? If yes, do you agree with my deduction for the above character?
- Salo’s response to a painting by Cy Twombly, Joanna’s gallery wall of birthday photos, and the mention of Outsider art and Shaker furniture demonstrates the significance of art in illuminating character traits and aspirations. Collecting items as a hobby/passion is portrayed as both a source of joy and pain, reflecting the characters’ longing for connection, meaning, and self-identity. Discuss.
- While the Oppenheimer family enjoys material comforts and social status, their relationships are marked by conflict, estrangement, and emotional struggles. The characters’ privilege amplifies their personal and familial conflicts, revealing that wealth and success but at the same time, do not guarantee happiness or fulfillment. The portrayal of their privileged lives also invites reflection on the societal and moral implications of wealth and social status.
After reading the novel, do you agree with the fact that money and family are not the only necessities for success? In fact, there are other options to explore as well. What are they, according to you?
- “The Latecomer” reflects and resonates with the social dynamics, complexities, and contradictions of privileged families. The novel offers a modern perspective on these situations by incorporating contemporary elements such as therapy goals and cancel culture. Via this book, Korelitz invited us to reflect on the human condition, societal norms, and the pursuit of status and wealth by presenting a sumptuous narrative set in the 21st century.
Do you agree? Also, why do you think Korelitz chose the title “The Latecomer”? Was there any particular reason behind it?
If you liked this set of questions here are a few other options you can consider.
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Cloud Cuckoo Land: Embark on a mesmerizing odyssey through time and space in Anthony Doerr’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” where stories intertwine, illuminating the human spirit’s unwavering resilience and the profound hope found in our shared narratives.
Crying in H Mart: Join this emotional journey with Michelle Zauner as she unearths her poignant struggle for identity, creative passion, and the profound love between a mother and daughter in “Crying in H Mart.” Prepare to be moved to tears and uplifted by this remarkable memoir showcasing her immeasurable strength.
Black Cake: Unravel the captivating mystery of an inherited black cake and a voice recording, as a family grapples with their identity and uncovers hidden truths in Charmaine Wilkerson’s compelling debut, “Black Cake.”
Wish You Were Here: Embark on a transformative journey with “Wish You Were Here” as a young woman finds strength amidst isolation, discovering resilience and the true meaning of connection in the face of a pandemic. A timely reminder of the indomitable human spirit.