Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin
Morningside Heights had several things that made me choose to read it. First of all, it’s about an English professor, and I love books that are set in academia, particularly about English professors (a profession I was partway to pursuing until I decided to stay in book publishing). Secondly, it takes place at Columbia University, which is where I did my graduate studies.
I immediately liked the book’s tone and pace. It begins by introducing us to one of the main characters, Pru Steiner, and, since we will be most interested in Pru once she herself gets to Columbia, it does a rushed recap of the early years of her life, telling us only what we need to know, and I liked the way the author did this. The book opens: “Growing up in Bexley, in the suburbs of Columbus, Pru had been drawn…” so we’re already on the move in the opening sentence.
Later I would come to dislike this approach, however. When we are introduced to the character of Arlo, we are given his backstory in one big rushed chapter, which felt more telling than showing to me. In fact, since Arlo is important (he is the English professor’s son by his first marriage), he has recurring chapters of his own, and they are all presented in this telling rather than showing way.
The crux of the story, which you learn early on, is this: Pru meets and falls for Spence, a rising young star in Columbia’s English department. They marry and have a daughter and are very happy, until Spence is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his late 50s.
Pru has aspirations of her own, first to be an actor, then to be an academic, but she drops all this when she marries Spence and gets what was then commonly called her MRS degree. Is she happy about this choice? Maybe. Does she wish she had fulfilling work of her own? Yes.
So when Spence quickly gets sick and Pru hires a caregiver, the story turns back toward her again, and we (at least I) are led to believe that it’s Pru’s turn now, that she is going to figure out who she is outside of her marriage. And what does the author immediately have her do? Meet another man and start dating on the sly (no judging here about whether or not she is entitled to date since her husband is mentally gone from her, just recounting the plot and the judgements of the characters).
Ok, Joshua Henkin, I waded through the Arlo chapters hoping I would get back to what I felt was the heart of the story, and then you did this, and you lost me. That is what you are going to have this woman do? Find another man? I thought you were going to finally open the world back up for her, let her use her brain and her talents. (In fact there was one part during Spence’s decline that he couldn’t write a book he had contracted for and, for a brief moment, I thought: oh cool, she’s going to write the book for him! But she didn’t. She just returned the advance.)
None of the characters in this book is drawn in great depth, but this is where I thought: this is a male author whom I think does not write women very well. All the reviews are raving about this book: the milieu, the pathos of the story of losing a loved one to this terrible disease. I don’t see any of the reviewers talking about how the author missed the boat on character development, and how he’s in such a rush to tell his story that he goes forward rather than down deep.
I will force myself to finish the book, but right now Pru and the new guy Walter are about to go ice skating and I’m feeling cringey, so I’m taking a break.
I just read a few more chapters. Pru is dithering about whether or not to get involved with Walter. Ok, sure, it’s a real dilemma for people in her position, and I feel for her: being still married but having your husband gone, having to watch him disappear and become helpless. But does this dithering make for an interesting literary dilemma? Not the way he’s drawing it out.
However, she just referred to doing something for Spene, and Henkin writes: “She could sign his name for him, the way she’d once tried to write his book.” (page 220) Really? She tried to write his book? I might need to go back and reread that part because I saw the author hinting at that, but it didn’t happen.
Ok, I finished the book. (I feel like a child saying: ok, I finished my dinner, can I have dessert now? Ok, I finished this book I. Can I read one I like now?)
Does every book have a point, a main theme it wants to get across? I think so. I think part of my problem was that I misunderstood this book. But I don’t blame myself; I blame the author. He started the book with Pru, and he talked about her growing up, about what she wanted out of life. Then, when she met and married Spence (the English professor), it became all about him, about what it was like living with him. And then he threw in chapters from the POV of Spence’s “long lost” son, which I found less appealing, hearing the boy sound like a brat complaining what a rotten father he had. And then Spence got sick. And that I think was the point of the book: what it was like for a family living with this awful illness. At least that’s what the few reviews I read seem to think the book was about, and they compliment the author on the sensitivity and insight with which he handled this topic.
But I think what the author did (at least to me) was to introduce me to a quirky, interesting, strong female lead, and then abandon her. Does she get some resurrection in the end? Well (total spoiler here), he must have heard my complaints above, because she does say she is planning to go to law school. But that’s practically a throwaway line and so random, because: law school? She loved studying literature. Why not go back to something she loved?
But really the author spends most of his time showing us that Pru has a new man in her life. Well thank goodness for that. Wouldn’t want her to be alone and have to figure things out for herself.