Editorial Note – I was given a copy of Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics in return for a review.
The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin is a rich story that explores the lives of four siblings. Full of love, betrayal and forgiveness, it’s a page-turner you won’t want to put down.
The story follows renowned poet Fiona Skinner at age 102 when she’s speaking at an event celebrating her poetry, which is her first public event in 25 years. When a girl named Luna asks her the inspiration behind her most famous work, that familiar name from her past inspires her to to tell her audience a story about her family and a betrayal.
It begins in a big yellow house with a funeral, an iron poker and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. The Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love. For more about the synopsis, click here.
The story is split into four different parts and starts in the year 2079 and then jumps back and forth between time to Fiona’s childhood with her three siblings and then to adulthood. When I first saw the book started in 2079, I wondered if there was going to be a sci-fi aspect to it but it’s not anything resembling that. Although, a peek into what the world will look like then was fascinating, especially when it comes to the impacts of climate change. But of course, this isn’t a novel about fighting bigger sources, it’s about the certain limitations of love.
The Skinner siblings life took a harsh turn with their father suddenly passed away. Overcome with grief and depression, their mother rarely leaves her room, leaving the four siblings to fend for themselves. There’s Rene, the eldest, who takes on the caretaker role at a way too young age; Caroline, the good-natured sister that will strive for tradition above anything else; Joe, the complicated yet dynamic brother; and then the youngest Fiona, the shy and tentative sister. Their difficult time during the pause brings each of them together in different ways. Joe is protective of all of his sisters, especially Fiona and there are examples of that throughout their childhood.
I will say the childhood sections, while interesting and important, went on a little too long for me. Most family sagas tend to spend quite a bit of time on the siblings’ childhood, I think because whatever happens when as kids do have lasting impact on adults. And that is the case for this one, too. But I really felt the book took off once the siblings are in their 20s.
Beyond the childhood section, the story had a good flow alternating between the past and present. I was engaged with each of the siblings’ storylines and how they come together.
There’s so much that happens and much to takeaway from the story. We mainly follow from Fiona’s perspective and she grows quite a bit. It was especially fascinating about what the title means, I won’t give any spoilers but I definitely did not expect that. I quite liked Fiona and she is very open to the reader and full of impactful observations that maybe comes with living to age 102.
Something that also stuck out was the balance between being progressive and tradition. After their mother recovers from her grief, she works to instill a work ethic with her girls as she doesn’t want them to ever rely on a man like she did. But this causes Caroline to rebel in a different way—by marrying her high school boyfriend and having children young. She begins to question if that’s what she really wanted in life.
Renee had to grow up too fast and a scary incident in her childhood left her scared. She’s successful in the medical industry and she still tries to watch out for her siblings but she doesn’t feel having her own kids is in her best interest. While Caroline embraces domestic life; Renee shuns it.
And then there’s Joe, both complicated and tragic. He becomes a star athlete but ends up losing a baseball scholarship. When he’s in his 20s, he’s involved in the financial industry and all the good and bad that comes with it.
We also find out exactly who Luna is and why she changed the siblings’ lives for good.