I know what you’re thinking, so make no mistake: The Last Romantics is not a romance novel. It’s not a romantic comedy, and it’s not a light, fluffy beach read. Instead, it’s a sweeping family saga that will break your heart over and over again in the most beautiful ways possible.
The Last Romantics follows the Skinner siblings, Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona, from childhood to adulthood. They’re complex, complicated characters from the start. We meet them on the day of their father’s funeral—one of the many standout events that is so formative to their identities as adults. We watch them mature, at first growing together, but eventually growing apart. For so long, they function as a foursome. But in time, that closeness becomes the thing that divides them.
The Last Romantics examines the little moments that shape us. It reminds us that it’s heartbreaking to not know somebody anymore. And it reassures us that sometimes, there’s no one to blame when bad things happen.
I spoke with Conklin about complicated sibling dynamics, the consequences of casting aside the relationships most important to you, and the failures (and triumphs) of love.
HelloGiggles: The Last Romantics is a compelling study in sibling dynamics. Do you have siblings?
Tara Conklin: I do have siblings. I’m one of three sisters—I’m the oldest—and I also have three children, a girl and two boys. I’m fascinated by sibling relationships. Watching the shifting parameters of my relationship with my sisters has been really interesting over the years. And as a parent, it’s fascinating to see the shifting alliances and the boy/girl dynamics. It keeps me entertained, watching my kids. [Laughs.]
HG: This is a story that could only be told by someone who has experienced a great loss. Without prying into your personal life too much, where did the idea come from?
TC: The original inspiration for this book did come from a tragedy that happened within my own family about 15 years ago. It was a shock that rippled through my family. Over the course of the weeks and months after the initial event, there was a lot of information that was coming out about what happened. I found myself asking all of these questions, because there was such a disconnect between the appearance of the family member and the way that he presented himself to the world, and what was actually going on in his head. It prompted a lot of questions. At the time, I wasn’t writing professionally; I was working as a lawyer. But I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always written things down, ever since I was a kid. I filed it away as, Wow, this was a really compelling situation. This is a really mysterious event that has prompted all these questions in my mind. I filed them in the back of my brain.
HG: Years later, did it all pour out onto the page?
TC: After I finished edits for [my 2013 novel] The House Girl, there was a lull before I started promoting the book. During that lull, my agent said, So, Tara, what are you working on next? I explained this idea and this story, and she said, Yes. Do that. So I started writing it. It was a long, long haul—it took me five years to write this book. I submitted it three times to my editor, and twice was told, This is really good. We love these characters. You’re getting there, but it’s not holding together as a novel. At the time, those words were very difficult to hear. But my editor is an incredibly wise and patient woman, and a wonderful, wonderful editor, and she had it right. It took me those two full drafts, and those years, to really find these characters and to find the story that I wanted to tell. Even though it was painful, it was all time well spent.
HG: It’s such a sweeping, epic story. It’s extremely rewarding to read.
TC: Those are my favorite kind of books. That’s why I sat down to write this book. I really wanted to write a sweeping, big-picture epic. I didn’t realize quite how hard it is to do that, even just technically. It was definitely a challenge for me as a writer to do that.
HG: Let’s start at the beginning, when the Skinner siblings are kids. They call those years “the Pause” because their mother, Noni, was in such a state of grief over losing her husband that she couldn’t take care of them. The things that happened during the Pause were so formative to their identities as adults. It was my favorite part.
TC: I loved writing that section. Although, as a mom, I had my heart in my throat the whole time. Oh my god, something really bad is going to happen to them. I was nervous for them. That section became really important. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I tried a lot of different formats for the book. The Pause, and the whole childhood section, did not appear until the third and final version of the book. After I submitted my second version to my editor, she said, You’re getting there, but it’s still not holding together. I literally sat down, put everything away, opened a blank document on my computer, typed “Chapter 1,” and started from the very beginning.
HG: Let’s talk about the four siblings: Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona, the narrator. Did you know who they were from the start, or did they come to you over time?
TC: I had this idea in my head at the beginning, as you do when you sit down. But I didn’t really know who they were. I had “the oldest, a boy,” “the youngest, a girl.” I had my stock ideas of what those sibling relationships would be, informed by myself both as a sister and as a parent, but it really took me digging into them and figuring out who they were to let the story evolve and the characters evolve.
HG: It’s heartbreaking to see them be so close as kids, but grow apart as adults. The Pause affected each of them differently.
TC: I was in a writing group at the time, and I remember one of the women in the group said to me, But WHY are these siblings so close? Why? And I said, Because they’re siblings! [Laughs.] For me, it was so self-evident—of course you’re going to be close with your siblings. But there are many people who don’t have siblings, and not all siblings are that close. A sibling relationship can be very strange; it can be important in childhood, and then not in adulthood. I felt like I had to go back to the beginning and excavate the origin.
HG: I really related to the feeling of wanting more for your life, but not feeling like you can ask for it, or that you deserve it. I think all four of them, and even Noni, experience that at some point.
TC: That journey is particularly strong for Caroline. She falls in love with Nathan so young and becomes a mom so young. Once you’re in that role and you’re giving and giving and giving as a parent, it’s very difficult to prioritize yourself. A lot of women have this conflict. She was an interesting character to write. I feel like I have things in common with all of the characters, but some of them more. Her journey was particularly poignant for me. After I quit the law, I was a stay-at-home mom with my kids for many years. It’s the greatest thing, and the absolute most tedious, awful thing. [Laughs.] It brings out the best and the absolute worst in you, and it’s hard to shift gears from doing everything for your kids to saying, Wait a minute. There’s more to my life that I want.
HG: Joe is such a familiar person, too. On the outside, he appears successful and happy. But on the inside, he feels empty and alone. What do you think broke him, and when did he break?
TC: That’s a good question. I think it was a combination of things that are specific to—well, I’m hoping they’re not specific anymore to being an American white male, but I think they were for a lot of men in my generation. You’re strong, you’re the breadwinner—there’s that scene where Claudia says, Joe, you’re the man of the family now. And Joe takes that on in every stereotypical way that you can. He has to be the strong one and not be in touch with his deeper emotions. He has this image in his head of how he’s supposed to be. He’s reached all of these goals: He has a fancy job, he has a beautiful fiancée, he’s in an amazing penthouse apartment. And yet, he forgets what’s really the most important relationship in his life, which is with his sister, Fiona. He’s cruel to her the night of his engagement party. That’s such a turning point for him. He has all of these friends, all of his fraternity brothers. But the real relationships, the ones that are truly important to him, are the ones that he’s cast aside.
I think I say at one point, “Joe was someone who destroyed the things he loved the most.” I feel like there are people who do that. Why is he like that? It’s his sense of self-worth. It’s certainly because of his father and all of the expectations that were placed on him. He’s in this role where he feels like he didn’t really earn any of it; it’s just being handed to him. He’s naturally good at baseball, he’s naturally good-looking, people like him, he’s charming. But he doesn’t feel like he owns any of it. He doesn’t feel like he’s worked for any of it.
HG: There are so many women who wanted to save Joe. Was there ever a version of this story where he was saved?
TC: No. I certainly wanted there to be. I do wonder, if Joe had gotten it together, would he and Luna have managed to save each other and form something stronger between the two of them? But that always seemed to me like a crucial plot point. This was the event around which the whole book was turning; it sort of had to happen. That was also the examination I wanted to do—there’s one sibling that was really floundering. And despite all of the love that surrounded him, and the closeness of these relationships, they couldn’t save him. He had to save himself, but he didn’t quite make it.
HG: Speaking of loss, I appreciated the dialogue around the fact that “sometimes bad things happen to those we love” but that “sometimes there’s no one to blame for bad things.”
TC: That’s Renee. Renee is the scientist. She’s the doctor. She wants there to be a solution to everything, and an explanation for everything. But there’s not. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel, the Virginia Woolf quote: “Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” This is getting fairly deep and philosophical and existential, but we make our stories. We are the ones who write them. Bad things happen for no reason, and we have to decide how to move forward. And we have the power to do that.
HG: At first, Fiona sets up that the story is about the failures of love. But at the end, she changes her mind. I think Noni and the sisters lived long enough to understand that shift. But do you think Joe ever felt it?
TC: That’s why the engagement ring is there. He really falls in love with Luna, and I do think he’s on the upswing. He’s found this thing outside of himself that is worth believing in. It does make me so sad to think he never has a chance to fully realize that. But I love their love story. She is so outside of his image of how he’s “supposed” to be. She’s totally out of left field. And yet, he really falls in love with her. And that brings with it all of the magic and the hope and the wonderful things that word evokes, but in a real way. He really does fall in love with her. I think, I hope, for Joe, that at the very end, he was feeling hopeful.
HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read lately?
TC: I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee pretty recently, and oh my god, talk about a sweeping family epic that will take your breath away. It’s so good. I feel like I’m not breaking any new ground by recommending that book. I’m reading a book, and it’s kind of unfair to talk about this one because it hasn’t come out yet, but I got an advance copy of A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum. It’s really good. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m about halfway through—I’m kind of parceling it out, the way you do with a good book. It’s a very gripping story.
Another book I absolutely love that I read recently is called The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a multi-character, sprawling novel. It’s wonderfully written and it’s very intellectual. It’s basically about trees. It’s about this group of people who come together, who all have special relationships with trees. Talking about it, it sounds like a big-concept book, but it’s so good. You know how some books make you look at the world differently? This book made me look at the world differently. Because of the way he talks about the relationships that trees have to the world, to the Earth, and to humanity. I really loved it. And it has great characters, too.
The Last Romantics is available wherever books are sold.