Privilege and tragedy. The perfect storm for any adolescent.
this is a big messy jewish-american family saga in which a couple is brought together by tragedy, their triplets are brought into existence by science, and the five of them spin off into their own separate orbits before being brought back together by another tragedy, and the efforts of another science-birthed sibling.
the whole dysfunctional dramedy of the oppenheimer family is rooted in the sour soil of grief and guilt, with johanna first meeting future husband salo at his fiancée’s funeral. twenty-year-old salo had been driving a jeep that crashed—killing two of his three passengers—and leaving him numb and “tumbling.” meeting him again several years later at a wedding, johanna finds herself drawn to him and becomes determined to absorb all of his damage.
From this moment forward it was all going to be about our father, and the great purpose of her life would be to love him enough to relieve him of his great burden, and to free him from that one, terrible shard of time in which he was so unfairly trapped, and to salve at last that wound of his, that one that wouldn’t heal.
for his part, salo shrugs into the relationship with no illusions, but also no great passion
But she knew what he’d done, and she was here anyway. Something inside him slipped into place: not love, not a sudden recognition of his own terrible loneliness, not even desire. Only he thought, looking at her, noting the obvious nervousness as she spoke and understanding that she wanted, for some unfathomable reason, his good opinion: Why not? Here was a pretty, amiable girl who seemed to have decided, apparently on the spot, that the redress of his great personal tragedy—for the record, not his own cosmic view of the matter—ought to be her purpose in life, or at least its priority.
Why not? is not the most promising beginning to a love story, but the two of them get along well enough and begin married life in quiet prosperity. salo finds more comfort in art than in other people, and he uses his considerable family wealth and unerring eye for emerging talent to amass a private collection that will continue to appreciate in value over the years. meanwhile johanna longs for a family to cement her distracted, emotionally unavailable husband more firmly into her life.
she struggles to get pregnant for years, consulting with fertility doctors and undergoing numerous unsuccessful procedures on her soul-crushing “infertility journey.” in what is to be their final attempt, three fertilized eggs are implanted into johanna’s womb while the final egg is frozen for the likelihood of a surrogate. but against all expectations, all three embryos “take” and johanna becomes pregnant with triplets.
as arduous a process as it was to bring her children into the world, their conception turns out to be the easiest part of achieving johanna’s dream of the big happy oppenheimer family, and the time that harrison, lewyn, and sally spent together in utero is the end of their closeness. the triplets don’t have any use for each other, and salo spends more and more time acquiring and admiring his art collection in its temperature-controlled brooklyn warehouse while johanna waits in vain “for the magical creative synergy of her happy children to fill the house.”
she clings to her dreams of familial bliss, but their home life is nothing more than a collection of individuals quietly pursuing their own interests and her children have nothing but antipathy for each other.
The three of them might rise but they simply declined to converge, even if they happened to actually share some interest or preference…To call them individually, in their distinct ways, “quiet” or “self-reliant,” for example, was to ignore the fact that Sally isolated herself to feel annoyed, Lewyn to feel wounded, and Harrison simply to escape the other two. So powerful was the force of their mutual aversion, and so ironic, given they had never actually been apart, that you might even have said it was the single thing they actually did share.
wanting domestic harmony is not enough to make it so; every unhappy oppenheimer is unhappy in their own way, and ultimately johanna understands that nothing she has done has saved herself or salo.
Finally, finally, the tiniest pinprick of reality came through the force field of her stubborn delusion, presenting Johanna with the first filament of an idea that it had all been a failure. They were two adults plus three children, made concurrently. They were five humans cohabiting. They were not, and never had been, a family.
as her children prepare to head off to college, johanna discovers a shocking secret about her husband, and—faced with an empty nest of unfulfilled hopes and purposelessness, she makes arrangements to use a surrogate and her long-frozen embryo to bring phoebe into the world, quadruplets separated by seventeen years.
what follows is a slow-burning story of a fragmented family unspooling through the triplets’ college-years misadventures; three blood relations forging their own individual paths through the found families of mentors, friends, and love interests; trying on identities, shaping their values and seeking their purpose. although they have been blessed with every financial opportunity, they are nonetheless lonely and drifting; seeking connection, trying to grow into themselves untethered by the bonds of a family divided by petty jealousy, betrayal, and widely diverging sociopolitical worldviews.
but then there’s phoebe, determined to wrangle them all back together.
it’s a big satisfying chonk of a book full of all the good family drama stuff like infidelity, secrets, and inheritance, and it’s dripping with juicy back- and side-stories where maladjusted and variously-unlikeable characters are forced to consider the world beyond their own privilege and education in matters of religion, sexuality, race, and ideologies. and chickens.
everything circles back tidily and somewhat conveniently, and although it’s centered around broken, yearning people, it’s not a disillusionment bleakfest and it is often very funny.
my only complaint is that, once the triplets leave home, johanna doesn’t factor much into the story; she’s central-but-absent from the narrative and their lives overall, which was disappointing to me, since she’s the most proactive and interesting character. her stubbornness, sacrifice, and suffering are the catalyst for so many important plot points, and her choices have such profound consequences that it was a shame to lose access to her inner life so early into the book.
it’s kind of a perfect summer-book-club-book, so if you have one of those, give it a whirl.