Overall Grade: A+
“Poets can speak in ways that transcend culture and gender and time. Films and novels remain rooted in their age, give or take a century. But poetry? Tell me The Canterbury Tales doesn’t still make you laugh and Keats make you cry. And, my dear girl Luna, why did your mother name you what she did? You asked about the real Luna. You asked about my inspiration. All of my work from, The Love Poem to The Last, The Pond, Mothers and Fathers, even The Last Romantic, derived from my brother and my sisters, my first and greatest loves.”
The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin is a powerhouse of a book. The narrative is a family epic, told by our protagonist, Fiona Skinner, a world famous poet in the year 2079, recounting to a fan at an event of hers, the story behind her most famous poem, The Love Poem. What unfurls is a story that spans centuries, about her and her three siblings, and the unbreakable love of family. I couldn’t put this book down. I was so consumed with the narrative and the characters. I found myself so deeply engrossed in their lives and stories, Conklin has a gift of getting you to care for a character immediately, there were some characters who were only present for a few paragraphs, but she wrote them into existence with such depth and skill that I felt their absence like an ache.
Of course, while I adored this book, I had some issues with it and I want to get those out of the way first. They are as such. Firstly, Fiona, our narrator, is narrating stories to us that she in no way could’ve known and an explanation as to how she knows these things is never given. I found this insistence on staying in first person when it made no logical sense to do so really took me out of it sometimes. Fiona is even able to narrate what her loved ones see before they die, this kind of all knowing power isn’t explained through magical realism, we, the reader, are just supposed to believe that, somehow, Fiona knows all. Another small gripe with Fiona is early in the book she’s reading heavy classics like War of the Worlds when she’s four years old, but it is latter made clear that she’s not a genius of any kind, so again, that jarring small fact took me from the story for a bit.
My final issue with this book, is it is VERY straight and white. Now I am queer myself, but I’m in no way suggesting every story has to feature queer leads, I do feel however, that a narrative taking place in modern day and then the future, that spans nearly a century, and crosses multiple state lines, having main characters who NEVER encounter a single queer individual is statistically impossible. As for it being very white, there are two characters of color; a black woman, Nadene, who is only present for one chapter and serves more as a plot device than a character. And then there is Luna, a latina woman who is actually incredibly important to the narrative, and though she is only present for a few chapters, she feels deeply and thoughtfully constructed as a full-fledged character. But this is hardly a realistic level of diversity for a story set primarily in New York City and Miami.
I understand the three sisters being straight was vital to the story, because so much of their plot lines dealt with female sexuality in regards to attraction to men, and how we are raised and conditioned as young women to react to such things. That doesn’t mean however that no one could’ve known a queer person. Also doesn’t mean there had to be a cast of only white people save for two.
Now, all that said, I did LOVE this book, and while those things irked me slightly my reading experience wasn’t lessened by them, so please don’t think I’m trying to put you off of The Last Romantics because I am NOT, I want to put you onto it because it was glorious.
Some things I loved: Fiona is supposed to be one of the world’s greatest poets when the story begins, but we never actually get to read a single one of her poems, and as a poet myself, I love this choice on Conklin’s end for several reasons, firstly being that when fiction writers with no poetry experience write characters who are poets and try to disperse poetry into their novel, it tends to read badly and obvious that said author isn’t a studied poet. Secondly, we are told throughout this whole text how brilliant and one of a kind The Love Poem is, so any poem written by Conklin wouldn’t have compared to what fictional Fiona Skinner wrote. We never get to read the poem, instead we get the story behind it, and from that we must work to imagine how Fiona crafted such a long, rich, and sometimes tragic life into a poem so life-altering people in this world named their children after characters from the piece.
I loved the honest and raw portrayal of what it is like to have siblings. I have a brother and sister myself, and I found such truth and accuracy in the way Conklin wove these relationships throughout the story. It is not picture perfect, easy friendship, it is work. It is brittle and hard and challenging, but it never dies, not if you try hard enough.
I loved Fiona, she was so honest and raw, and I like that we learned who she was by learning about the people that mattered to her. In actuality, so little of this book follows Fiona’s personal life, it is mostly about her three siblings, because as she herself says, they are her great loves, they are the story behind The Love Poem, and it is their story we the reader must understand if we wish to understand Fiona Skinner.
I adored this book with my whole heart and despite its flaws, it truly is a singular masterpiece that I cannot recommend enough.