Korelitz’s plot points are in some ways old-fashioned – a tragic accident, an extramarital affair, a secret bequest, a mysterious letter – and in some ways new: “therapy goals,” cancel culture. The battle here is classic – sibling rivalry, infidelity – and contemporary too. Conceived in a lab, the Oppenheimer triplets remain cool and assert their individuality in both creative and cruel ways. As a child, Sally throws away Harrison’s chess medal. As Cornell students in adjoining dorms, Lewyn and Sally pretend they don’t have a sibling on campus. What a blessing for these three and for the reader that Phoebe, simultaneously frozen but born nearly 19 years later, grows up with the perspective of deciphering and partially disarming her tragicomic family.
At times this book suffers from an embarrassment of wealth. The plot is ingenious, the pace brisk – but the reader longs to dig deeper. Joanna fades into the background as her children grow up. Her pain is palpable, but her main quality is denial. “Their mother, for as long as Lewyn could remember, had collected and imbued such small moments with great meaning, seeing so little of who the three really were.” As Joanna clings to the illusion of family unity, she begins to “slip away”, and the reader also loses her point of view. We see the repercussions of her actions in the latter half of the novel, but we no longer have access to the mixture of pain and idealism that motivates them.
Salo’s response to art offers some of the best passages in the book. When he comes across a painting by Cy Twombly, he faints, overcome by “that orange, that red, those rhythmic loops, their valiant attempt to scribble something away.” Here we see something of the banker’s soul as he reacts to color and dynamic form, but the novel moves on quickly. Events overtake the emotion, and we have to see Salo as his wife and children, as a number. His “attentive self, his essential self” slides off the stage and off the page.
Self-confident and self-deprecating, Phoebe is a captivating young woman, who sums up her own situation: “Privilege and tragedy. The perfect storm for any adolescent.” But her usefulness is such that in the closing chapters of this complex book she becomes a Swiss army knife with a character: interventionist (“I want to talk about some things”), girl detective (“Would you please tell me about the legal problems?” ), pardon (“You didn’t know this was the last thing you’d ever say to him”) and matchmaker (“Maybe it’s something you two should talk about”).
As for the triplets, “in full flight from each other into their ancestral petri dish” – their dislike becomes limiting. A more nuanced relationship would raise the stakes on the fateful night when the siblings turn on each other. Ultimately, their deep-seated antipathy undermines the drama of mutual betrayal.