A Sweeping Family Drama Looks at Women's Compromises

Posted by Cybil on January 31, 2019
Before writing her debut novel, The House Girl, in 2013, Tara Conklin worked for an international human-rights organization and as a corporate lawyer. But she secretly longed to be an author. Now she's back this February with her sophomore novel, The Last Romantics, a sweeping epic about four siblings.

Conklin told Goodreads how having a daughter made her realize that she shouldn't put her dreams of becoming an author on hold. She also discussed her new novel and recommends five of her favorite family drama novels.

Goodreads: Summarize your book for readers.

Tara Conklin: The Last Romantics tells the story of the four Skinner siblings: fierce Renee, dreamy Caroline, golden-boy Joe, and watchful Fiona. As children, a family tragedy pushes them together, and later, as adults, a second tragedy tests the strength of those bonds and forces the siblings to ask what, exactly, they will do for love. The book opens in the year 2079, with the youngest sibling, Fiona Skinner, addressing a packed auditorium. She is 102 years old and a famous poet, best known for her iconic work, The Love Poem. A young woman rises from the audience to ask Fiona about her inspiration for the poem.

Fiona’s answer to that question forms the heart of The Last Romantics—it’s the story of Fiona’s childhood, family loyalties, family betrayals, and a secret that’s been kept for generations. I think ultimately the novel is about the complexities of love and how women and men navigate those complexities, how love relationships—whether romantic or familial—require sacrifices and responsibilities. There’s rarely a "happily ever after" or "love conquers all." And yet we all strive to love and be loved because, at the end of the day, what else really matters?

GR: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

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TC: As a kid, I was a total bookworm. I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, and I spent a lot of time at the library. And, like many bookworms, I thought I would become a writer one day. Of course! What else was there? But as I grew older, writing struck me as a highly unrealistic career goal—similar to, say, wanting to be a rock star. (Writers definitely ranked right next to rock stars in my mind.) So I decided that I’d get a “real” job and write once I retired. That seemed a workable compromise. In college I majored in history, then traveled quite a bit in my 20s, worked for an international human-rights NGO in New York City, went to law school, moved to London, got married, and worked as a lawyer at a big international firm.

But throughout all these years, I wrote. I wrote short stories, journals, essay-ish pieces, letters to the editor, arguments, novel beginnings, novel ends. I wrote for fun, to entertain myself, to understand the world, to release my demons. I never showed my work to anyone. It was an entirely private, personal exercise. I truly believed that I would continue my legal career and then—finally, at last!—write full-time during my retirement. But in the months after the birth of my first child, I realized two things: first, that I would never tell my daughter to wait decades to do the thing she truly loved; and second, that I had a story to tell.

It was during maternity leave that I began writing the story that became The House Girl, my first novel. The central character of that book, Josephine Bell, gripped me like none other ever had. This was a story that did not feel private or personal. It felt expansive and compelling. For the first time, I wanted to take this character out into the wider world. I knew that, at the very least, I had to try. Then another year or two (and another child, another maternity leave!) passed before I had the guts (and the savings) to actually quit my law job, but I did. And then after another 18 months or so of writing, editing, and querying, I ended up with an agent, an editor, and a publisher for The House Girl. That’s when I officially retired from being a lawyer.

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GR: What sparked the idea for The Last Romantics?

TC: The original inspiration for this book came from a family tragedy that happened many years ago. As details emerged over the weeks and months following the event, I found myself asking so many questions about why and how the tragedy had unfolded. These questions—about all the big things like family, loss, success, and love—lodged themselves in the back of my brain. But it took another ten years before I sat down to explore these issues with the fictional Skinner family. By that point in time, I also wanted to investigate some of my own concerns about women, care-giving, marriage, children, and career.

I was interested in looking at the space between the ideal (the fairy-tale, happily-ever-after love) and the real (marriage or any long-term partnership, with all the requisite compromises and mundane details). This ideal-versus-real theme inspired the title The Last Romantics. I think my generation of women, the Skinners’ generation, was the last to be raised with the Disney princess model of love and romance: be rescued by “the one,” get married, have kids, live happily ever after. This vision sat alongside feminist visions of “having it all”—family and kids, plus professional and financial success equal to that achieved by men. This is what Noni drills into her daughters: achieve financial independence, stay in school, have a career. But these visions played out very differently in real women’s lives.

I think for many women of my generation, we sacrificed the career vision to the family vision. We stayed home with the kids, took a part-time job, didn’t go back to school for that graduate degree, etc., etc. The compromises women make in service to this vision of love and family are so much greater than those made (generally speaking) by their male partners. This is what I meant by The Last Romantics—the Skinner sisters, hopefully, are the last generation to chase that ideal, to be forced to compromise personal happiness and satisfaction in service to kids and family. Or kids and family in service to career. In the novel’s final scene, Fiona looks at Caroline’s daughters, who are now in their 20s, and thinks how strong they are, how they must be puzzled by the dilemmas that had plagued their mother and aunts. She says: “My nieces assumed the world was designed for them, the way they wished it to be. They took, they didn’t ask.” I hope my own daughter will move through her future world this way, with confidence and no apologies.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

TC: After reading many family novels as I wrote The Last Romantics, I’ve been shaking it up this past year. My current obsession is The Overstory by Richard Powers, which is blowing my mind in the best possible way. It’s a fascinating, brilliant book with a deep, important message about environmentalism and humanity, but it’s not overbearing or preachy. It’s full of interesting characters and high-wire, ingenious plotting. I keep thinking: How is he doing this? Normally I have two to three books on the go at once, but this one is occupying me completely. And I’m reading it slowly—it’s big, long, and rich, and I want it to last.

Conklin Recommends Her Favorite Literary Family Dramas

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"I’m the oldest of three sisters, and this was one of the first books I vividly remember reading as a child—and the very first to make me cry! It’s a classic for any age."

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"This story of daughters, inheritance, and secrets set on a family farm in Iowa is one of my all-time-favorite novels. It’s a book I reread every few years for the brilliance of the prose, storytelling, and development of complex, realistic relationships between the family members. The book is a retelling of King Lear, and it was the first novel that made me aware of how important storytellers are historically in examining the human condition."

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"I read this while I was writing The Last Romantics, and I remember thinking: Holy crap, why even bother writing another family novel? This book is perfect. Spanning 50 years, Patchett expertly weaves the stories of a blended family. Each chapter can stand as its own exquisite short story. This was another one that made me cry!"

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"This is an epic novel in every sense of the word. Focusing on a Korean family’s immigration to—and life in—Japan during the 20th century, it does what I think the very best historical fiction does: shows how the massive levers of history intimately impact individual lives. I learned a great deal while reading this and fell in love with the protagonist, Sunja."

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"I read this story of two families—one English, the other Bangladeshi—while I was living in London. Smith’s novel educated me more about British history, post-colonization, and modern British culture than any nonfiction book could while also creating indelible characters and providing a thoroughly enjoyable, funny read. This is Zadie Smith’s first book, which still astounds me and clearly illustrates what a divine writer she is."

Tara Conklin's novel The Last Romantics will be available on February 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Beckman I can't wait to read Tara Conklin's latest book!

I can say "I knew her when": I used to babysit her when she was an infant in that small town in Western Massachusetts. I'm sure I influenced her somehow. ;-)

message 2: by Kim (new)

Kim There are only three sisters in the story, not four.

message 3: by Morgan (new)

Morgan Singh Very nice drama idea. I really liked the conversation. Before start talking about anything else I thought I must congratulate you about the post.
Very rarely I liked this drama category, mostly I use to play Sudoku on this website https://sudokuonlineplay.net/ and win most of the times.

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