Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin
Publisher: Pantheon, 2020
Genre: Urban Fiction
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Morningside Heights tells the story of Pru Steiner, a graduate student ready to take the world by storm. Set in New York circa 1976, Pru is ambitious, daring, and proud. Her plans quickly fall by the wayside, however, when she meets her charming young Shakespeare professor, Spence Robin. Spence is everything Pru didn’t know that she was looking for: dreamy, brilliant, and charismatic. The two quickly become involved, and Pru’s life is subsequently turned upside down. Pru’s relationship with Professor Robin complicates her academic career, forcing her to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about herself and her path in life.
Thirty years later, Spence isn’t acting like his usual self. He is lethargic, is always cold, and has trouble concentrating on simple tasks. Pru is left to handle this new challenge on her own, as their daughter, Sarah, is away at medical school. In the midst of Spence and Pru’s adjustment to a new way of life from a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s is Arlo: Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage. Arlo randomly reappears in his father’s life, only now as a wealthy biotech entrepreneur and his father’s best hope for recovery. Pru, meanwhile, meets a man in the midst of her isolation and loneliness, and a potential romance begins to form. Morningside Heights is a story of love, loss, and the simutlaneous hateful and wonderful messiness that comes with being human.
Joshua Henkin’s works are highly lauded for their complex, dynamic characters, and Morningside Heights is no exception. Largely set in the titular neighborhood in Manhattan, this book pays homage to the varied lives of people living in New York. There are no sidekicks in this novel; every character is a completely fleshed out individual with their own thoughts, hopes, and fears. Everyone is highly unique: from Spence, who struggles with the deterioration of his once-great mind, to Ginny, his no-nonsense caretaker, every person in the story adds something special. As is the case in real life (and is often difficult to translate into fiction), no characters are created for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. The reader, as a result, feels seen through the triumphs and struggles of the characters: you will truly feel for them, to the point of being embarrassed, outraged, and devastated for them as the story unfolds.
This novel also cleverly utilizes a shifting timeline, which is at once engaging and (delightfully) disconcerting. It adds to the reader’s depth and understanding of the story to see certain events transpire, then to see their precursors in the past. The characters also find themselves at many points looking back on their lives, and wondering where their plans went awry. Morningside Heights tackles a wide variety of issues, from love (both romantic and familial), to changing expectations in the times when life takes a turn we could never have anticipated for ourselves.
Perhaps the most important thing this book has to offer is found in its versatility and the connection it creates between people of all walks of life. Suffering doesn’t discriminate; and we as humans are united in the fact that none of our lives are untouched by hardships. Morningside Heights is a book about how to react when things don’t go as planned, something we’ve all experienced for ourselves. Pru’s life is constantly in flux: from Spencer’s diagnosis to Arlo’s sporadic appearances, Pru is constantly adapting to a new way of life. The important thing to note, however, is that Pru doesn’t always handle these changes well. She makes mistakes. She gets angry. She wallows in the unfairness of life. Don’t we all? This story is powerful and resonant in that it sheds light on the fact that sometimes bad things happen, and that we aren’t supposed to handle everything perfectly. More so than this, it reminds us that beautiful, wonderful things can grow from the mistakes and hardships we endure.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange
for this honest and unbiased review.