Thursday, November 4, 2021

Book 308: The Last Romantics

"Some people will choose, again and again, to destroy what it is they value most."

Dates read: April 7-11, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Like most of the oldest children I know, I tend to feel responsible for other people. I'm always wanting to know where my husband or coworkers or friends are heading off to, and I think that's a bit rooted in growing up knowing that I needed to know where my sister was. I also tend towards bossiness and overachieving in a way that's typical of oldest kids. I'm not sure that I 100% buy into birth order theories as a whole, every family is different, but I do think there are some broad generalizations that can be made and that will turn out to be accurate more often than not.

I had just one little sister to be responsible for. There are four Skinner siblings in Tara Conklin's The Last Romantics. Renee is the oldest, the responsible one. Caroline, the next oldest, is soft-hearted and traditional. Then Joe, the only boy, the gifted athlete, the apple of everyone's eye. And finally Fiona, the baby. The Skinners are a happy family until they're not: when their father dies in an accident, their mother Noni finds out that they're not as well off as she thought, and the loss of not only her husband but the life she thought she had achieved pitches her into a deep depression. They downsize, and Noni takes to her bed. Not for a week or two, or even a month on two, but for a couple years. The Skinner children are more or less left to raise themselves during what they come to call The Pause.

The seeds of what will become of them are planted during The Pause. Renee takes her responsibilities to take care of the others seriously, and becomes dedicated to achieving at a level that will keep anyone from guessing what's going on at home, setting her down a path towards becoming a doctor. Caroline falls in with a neighbor family, forming a bond with one of their boys that will deepen into romance and marriage. Joe's talent and good looks ensure that his outward needs are met, even if he struggles to process his trauma. And Fiona learns to observe, a skill that comes in handy as she becomes a writer and poet. Noni does recover, and the family seems more or less intact, but the damage that's been done can't be undone.

I was biased towards this one from the start: this kind of following-a-group-of-characters-over-time thing is something I absolutely love in a book. I tend to find that the books that stay with me the most are ones where character is first and foremost, and this book is all about character. The siblings and their relationships feel complicated and real. Though they all had moments of being their worst selves, their behaviors felt rooted in how their experiences, particularly during their childhoods, interacted with their innate personalities. I also appreciated that the book never felt the need to have there be a dramatic confrontation between the children and their generally leaned away from melodrama rather than leaning into it, and I think there are plenty of families that do just try their best to forget the bad moments and move on.

As much as I loved this book for the most part, there were some plot elements that kept me from considering it truly great. First was that The Pause could go on for multiple years without anyone really noticing. As much as Renee was able to serve in loco parentis to her younger siblings, there are things like doctor's visits and parent-teacher conferences and signing up for extracurriculars that seem like they could have been patched over for a while but not for as long as Conklin asked us to believe. And then there was the framing device, which featured a very elderly Fiona (in a world where global climate change has changed things for the worse) interacting with a young woman who might have a connection to the Skinners. This did strike me as a little too convenient and neat. On the whole, though, this is a lovely book about the bonds between siblings and would be perfect for a reader who loves well-realized characters. I very much enjoyed it and highly recommend it!

One year ago, I was reading: George, Nicholas, and Wilhem

Two years ago, I was reading: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Three years ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food

Four years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

Five years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Six years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

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